Should We Applaud Between Movements?

05/10/2012 13:45 BST | Updated 03/12/2012 10:12 GMT

Every summer I sit amazed and delighted at the BBC Proms audience who so enthusiastically, and yet often politely, applaud between movements while I so often sneakily snigger at the woman, a being of the utmost conventional practice, sitting in front who would always shake her hear in utter disapproval at the vulgarity of such a concept.

It is, seemingly, starting to occur in many concert halls; some will say, inevitably, that it is ignorance that see patrons applaud between movements though I have observed this occurrence as a change in times.

The convention of silence during performances developed late in the 19th century: Mozart, for example, would have expected people eating, drinking and talking over his music, delighted when his audience would clap and cheer during his symphonies. It was Gustav Mahler who decided to clamp down on applause and, even specified, in the score of his Kindertotenlieder that its movements should not be punctuated by applause. Wagner discouraged what he considered 'distracting noises' from his audience at Bayreuth in the 1800's.

Silence was exercised aplenty during the 20th century: Applause between movements of a symphony became regarded as a distraction from a works momentum, unity and feeling.

At this year's BBC Proms Maestro Marin Alsop, conducting the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra, just shrugged and smiled when applauded between movements of Dvořák's Ninth Symphony.

"In Rachmaninov's second piano concerto, there is such a flash it feels unnatural not to clap," says Gramophone's Martin Cullingford.

And TimeOut's Jonathan Lennie, on the subject of applause, says "In Beethoven's 9th, a massive choral outpouring, you can't help but clap, but in other works like Mahler 9 these are the final symphonies, the end of the life. They end in silence."

What both Cullingford and Lennie are saying is that, sometimes, the music demands applause.

Most audiences applaud after the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony Pathétique; that allegro molto vivace movement, ending in the glorious key of G major' is desperate to hear the applause. Those cymbal smashing, tutti-fortissimo Rossini finales demand applause. The opening movement of Beethoven's 5th demands applause. Mars, from The Planets, demands applause. What other movements demand applause? Arousing moments and movements from Shostakovich, Brahms and Grieg.

Is an applause between two movements rather an acknowledgement of emotion and understanding from the audience to the performers? Perhaps like the audience is saying "yes, I get it". Almost a communication rather than a hindrance to a performance. Or is it, as previously mentioned, an interruption of momentum and subject?

I remember once taking a friend, and fellow HuffPost UK blogger Hattie Garlick, to hear Shostakovich's 10th at the Barbican conducted by Andrew Gourlay (which I believe, when I was a critic, I reviewed). I whispered in her ear just before it began "Don't clap in the pauses" to then, after the first movement, find myself applauding - how absurd. Pfft, it was good music, what more could one ask for?

Speaking yesterday at the New York Philharmonic's Off Stage series pianist Emmanuel Ax said "After the first movement of, say, the Emperor Concerto, applaud! The music demands it!"

I find these moments of inter-movement applause a genuine and appropriate gesture from audience to performer and from audience to composer. It is a breakdown of 20th century convention and concert hall etiquette but c'mon we're in the 21st century now.

Should we applaud between movements? Hmm, I say yay but when, as Emmanuel Ax says, "The music demands it!".