applause, please

Alex Ross, classical music writer at The New Yorker (and author of the acclaimed music history The Rest is Noise), has a great article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper on the role that outdated classical music etiquette plays in discouraging new audiences to the medium.  Highly worth a read – here’s the opening gambit:

Last autumn, Barack Obama hosted an evening of classical music at the White House. Beforehand, he said, “Now, if any of you in the audience are newcomers to classical music, and aren’t sure when to applaud, don’t be nervous. Apparently, President Kennedy had the same problem. He and Jackie held several classical music events here, and more than once he started applauding when he wasn’t supposed to. So the social secretary worked out a system where she’d signal him through a crack in the door. Now, fortunately, I have Michelle to tell me when to applaud. The rest of you are on your own.”

Obama was having fun at the expense of the No Applause Rule, which holds that one must refrain from clapping until all movements of a work have sounded. No aspect of our modern concert ritual causes more bewilderment. The problem is not that the Rule is so arcane that even a law professor turned commander-in-chief cannot master it. Rather, it’s that the etiquette and the music sometimes work at cross-purposes. The noisy codas of the first movement of Beethoven’s “Emperor” and the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique demand applause, even beg for it. The word “applause” comes from the instruction plaudite, which appears at the end of Roman comedies. Those climactic chords are the musical equivalent of plaudite: they almost mimic the action of putting one’s hands together.

[link] –

2 Replies to “applause, please”

  1. thanx for this.

    Ross is the best music writer out there, imo. i read anything he puts out – even when i don’t care one iota about the topic.

    btw, the best story i’ve ever heard about audience applause (or the lack thereof) is from when Milton Katims conducted a George Crumb piece with the Seattle Symphony years ago.

    apparently, there was protracted silence after one of Crumb’s signature slow fades. even after Katims slowly lowered his arms and stood still, the audience remained mute. finally, Katims turned to the audience and said in a sarcastic tone, “it’s oooover.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.