When to clap at classical music concerts: the final word on the matter

There’s a great deal of talk going on about the accessibility of classical music and how this relates to the future of the art form. Music needs an audience, and balancing the need to keep those concert halls filled with the equally important need to provide more challenging, experimental – and therefore, perhaps, less accessible – programming, is a tough job, and an extremely important one. I’ve been sticking in an oar or two to this debate myself.

There is one particular strand to this ongoing discussion, however, that we can dismiss easily. I’ve decided to do that here, partly so that we can get on with the more complex arguments, and partly as a service to a troubled, but rather noisy, section of society.

I refer, of course, to the Inveterate Clappers – the IVs, if you will. Now, whenever the conversation turns to the problems facing classical music – what is its place in the modern world, how can we make it more appealing to people who wouldn’t normally care for it etc. – someone will invariably chime in with that choice chestnut: “I find classical music concerts difficult because I don’t know when to applaud”. Just today, I encountered a piece on the Huffington Post, entitled, if you please, The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained, in which the writer complains about the “great many ‘clap here, not there’ cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by”. The article is well worth reading, and is more nuanced and sensible than might be suggested by its (intentionally) provocative title and the brief quotation I’ve provided. But since its author has raised this concern – when to clap? – and since this thorny question seems to haunt the fears of many would-be concert-goers, I thought I’d provide a simple print-out-and-keep guide that will settle the matter definitively. One you’ve read this you can attend any classical music concert, secure in the knowledge that you won’t commit a solecism, and will leave refreshed and nourished by the music and feeling at one with us regular concert-goers.

The IV’s Guide To Concert Attendance

1. Don’t applaud during the music.

As an IV you have expressed your discontent at the constraints placed on your hand-clapping propensities. You cannot grasp why it is necessary for you to suppress your natural desire to express loudly your delight and wonderment at precisely the moments that those emotions arise. You will find, though, that most audience members will find such behaviour distracting and detrimental to their own enjoyment of the music; they might, for example, be having a quite different emotional experience from you (this dissonance in common response happens regularly in classical music, particularly that written from around 1810 to 1880 and again from the 1920s until the end of the 20th Century but it is not unknown in the music of other eras). While this no doubt is indicative of their inherent snootiness and emotional sterility in contrast to your own unaffected, all-embracing nature, you ought nonetheless to be tolerant of their shortcomings. This is a simple matter of courtesy: after all, they’ve paid for tickets as well, and they’d like to hear the music rather than whatever noises you choose to make. This rule holds fairly fast, though there are some noted exceptions. At the Last Night of the Proms you can clap at any time you damn well please. And during performances of Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss or Shostakovitch’s 15th String Quartet, audience participation is not only permissible, but considered desirable by the performers.

2. Only applaud between movements when you absolutely have to

As an IV, you are in touch with your emotions. And, when a vigorous scherzo or divine slow movement comes to its close and it has been played very well, you feel it almost rude not to let the musicians know how much you’ve appreciated their efforts. Even us starchy, hide-bound old classical hands sometimes experience stirrings at moments like this – knobbly spider-like twitchings in the cobwebby recesses of our souls – and so would not think ill of you were you to venture a little patter of applause. There is a caveat here, though. If you applaud, others will most likely join in (you’re never alone, even in the Albert Hall) but it is important to keep this tween-movements applause brief. Otherwise the performance could take all night and punters have homes to go to. You should also remember that, while the performers will be gratified at your acknowledgement that they are playing especially well that night, orchestral players in particular like to make last orders at the bar and should your indulgence jeopardise their chances of a pint of best (the brass) or brandy-and-soda (the strings), they will pay you back. Researchers have noted a correlation between the number of bum-notes during symphonic finales and the occurrence of inter-movement applause. Most of those wrong notes, it seems, come from horn players which is hardly surprising given the bibulous tendencies of that breed. I should say that I have never met an oboist who was not teetotal, and I’ve never once heard one play a wrong note. There’s a lesson in that, I am sure.

3. When has the piece finished?

This, clearly, is the greatest bugbear. The turning-up-to-work-with-no-trousers-on nightmare moment. The potential to expose yourself as a neophyte, or dilettante. The piece seems to be ended, but the composer can’t resist starting up again, wringing out every last possibility for a particular theme. And in that half-bar’s rest between the false and actual ending, you’ve started clapping wildly … and alone, because you alone didn’t know. And now you feel a right Charlie. First, let me say this. Should this ever happen to you, you’ll get over it soon enough. Most of your fellow audience members don’t know you, and will forget you presently. This minor aberration, should you make it, will not adversely affect your professional career, nor will it turn your loved ones against you. It will only have a deadening affect on your libido if you allow it to.

The crucial thing, though, is that this devastating humiliation need never happen, if you follow my simple instruction. Now, if your chief objection to attending concerts of classical music is this whole clap-here-not-there cloak-and-dagger protocol stuff, I am precisely the answer to your prayer. I am an insider and I am about to blow apart the whole insidious, whispering, masonic conspiracy that excludes you IVs from the gilded, privileged world of classical music that we have guarded so assiduously and so jealously for so long. I do not do this lightly. The last person who attempted this was found dangling beneath a bridge over the Danube, his left eye pierced by a conductor’s baton and his gullet stuffed with the full-score of a symphony. And it was a Mahler symphony (I forget which; one of the long ones).

Wait until everybody else start clapping. That’s it. That’s the answer. Now that you know it, don’t you feel silly? It’s that simple. If you’re concerned about making an arse of yourself by clapping at the wrong moment, just pause and wait to see what everyone else is doing. Perhaps you will consider this approach to be inimical to your innate spontaneity. I suspect, though, that there have been other junctures in your life when you’ve had to behave with restraint, and that the trauma engendered at such times has not been insupportable. And given the treasures that await, those very riches that we classical-music initiates have been guarding as we flit becloaked between the great centres of Vienna and Bonn, London and Paris, opus numbers held unspoken on our secretive lips; and now that the code has been revealed to you, surely it is meet that you should whisper that code in the hidden doorways and so assume your rightful place among us.

So, to recapitulate, just remember: (1) don’t applaud while the musicians are still playing, (2) if moved by an especially good performance, it’s acceptable to applaud between movements (but if in doubt, sit on your hands: it won’t hurt you to do so) and (3) at the end, wait for others to applaud and then join in. If you follow my three simple rules you need not fear any social embarrassment whatsoever.

I provide this information as a kind of public service, but I’d like just one small thing in return. The next time you’re upbraiding the classical music “establishment” for its toffee-nosed attitudes, pray keep a lid on the whole I-don’t-know-when-to-clap nonsense. 

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