Applause When the Moment is Right; Bravo: Listening to the music gives an audience the clues it needs to know when to start clapping.


The orchestra roars and the pianist's hands are a blur: thunderous octaves in one hand against single notes in the other, then a fusillade of double octaves that brings the first movement to a majestic conclusion.

Many in the audience begin to applaud; others, who consider themselves more knowledgeable, don't -- and they look either embarrassed for or scornfully at those who do. The applause peters out. Soloist and conductor confer for a moment, the orchestra tunes and the piece starts up again with the second movement.

This is almost certainly what we can expect Friday night in Meyerhoff Hall when pianist Terrence Wilson, conductor Daniel Hege and the Baltimore Symphony conclude the first movement of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. It's a scenario that recurs regularly in performances of virtuosic, crowd-pleasing works such as the Tchaikovsky. And it presents a classic dilemma: What is one to do when the music says "please applaud" and modern concert etiquette says "please wait"?

"Almost any time the audience wants to applaud, that's fine with me," says pianist Horacio Gutierrez, who will give a solo recital next Sunday at Goucher College and who is a Tchaikovsky Concerto veteran. Gutierrez remembers few times outside music centers such as New York when an audience did not applaud the concerto's first movement.

"[Applause] never bothers me unless it interrupts the music," he says.

Only once did an audience repeatedly interrupt Gutierrez. "It was a Fourth of July spectacular at the Hollywood Bowl in 1977, and I was playing the Tchaikovsky with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta," he says. "This was an audience that was there for the fireworks, and every time I played a brilliant passage or the music came to a temporary pause, thousands of people began to applaud. Zubin began to conduct like this "

Gutierrez waves his right hand, leans back, turns his head with the sort of frown an outraged traffic cop might wear and holds his left hand up as if to scream, "Halt!"

Sometimes audiences applaud because they don't know they're not supposed to but assume that they are -- such as when they applaud every movement in a work. At other times, applause is prompted by the nature of the music -- such as that which concludes the Tchaikovsky's first movement or the treacherous, hair-raising leaps that conclude the second movement of Schumann's C-Major Fantasy.

Generally speaking, the more knowledgeable an audience is, the less applause between movements. But that has not always been the case. Broadcast recordings of the New York Philharmonic show that Carnegie Hall audiences were applauding after the first movement in pieces such as the Tchaikovsky Concerto as recently as the early 1950s. Concert programs for solo recitals at that time began to request that audiences refrain from applause between numbers in a group of Chopin mazurkas or Schubert songs.

What put the final kibosh on applause between movements at that time was the introduction of the long-playing record. The LP made it possible to hear relatively long works such as a symphony by Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven without a break. And because LPs were so much cheaper and more convenient than the smaller 78s, they enjoyed a much larger market than the older medium. For the first time in history, listeners were getting most of their musical experiences in the privacy of their own homes rather than in concert halls. The approximately three-second pause between movements on the LP does not offer enough time to applaud. And so far as one can tell, most people are not inclined to clap their hands in either their own living rooms or, for that matter, those of others.

Applause before the end of a piece had its heyday in the 18th century and early in the 19th, before the advent of Romanticism established the organic -- almost sacred -- unity of musical works. There were even occasions when applause was acceptable while music was still being played. In a letter to his father, Mozart bragged that the Parisians applauded at places in his D Major Symphony that he had put into the music expressly to earn such cheers. And C.P.E. Bach complained about bravura keyboard players who pouted after only a few measures of a piece because "they could not bear to be so long without the bravos."

In that period, audiences did not hesitate to express their pleasure during the pauses between movements. At Haydn's London concerts, the movements that received the most applause were actually encored. The second movement of the "Clock" Symphony was a particular favorite as was -- a generation later -- the same movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. A newspaper account in 1816 reported an occasion when the Seventh's Allegretto movement was not encored, explaining that the "dense crowding of the audience hindered the free use of their hands [for applause]."

The concerts at which the music of Beethoven and even that of such later composers as Chopin were premiered often presented the music piecemeal. The first movement of a Chopin piano concerto might be followed by a movement of a sonata for cello, then by some operatic arias and then by the conclusion of the concerto.

This practice began to change in the mid-19th century when composers such as Wagner and Berlioz began to idealize musical works as indivisible imaginative unities and complained

about the way they were dismembered in performance and dismembered by applause. Wagner tried to write his operas as one continuous fabric so that applause for arias could not interrupt the musical flow. Of a single movement in one of his pieces, Berlioz wrote that "it brought enormous applause at first hearing and therefore must be shallow and comparatively worthless -- and I had thought so well of it!"

Music was in the process of being elevated from entertainment, which aims to please and asks for applause, to high art, which aims to illuminate and asks for serious appreciation with applause coming only at the end. The earlier relationship of audience to music was participatory almost in the manner of that between jazz musicians and audiences. In the later relationship, audiences were often expected to be as quiet and reverential as visitors to a museum.

Another view

Not everyone who attended concerts in the 19th century was sure the new restraint was entirely a good thing. In the 1820s, the opera-loving novelist and critic Henri Stendhal recorded his approval of the change that reduced the catcalls and whistles, which used to follow major arias, to the level of whispering. But he also worried about a future in which individual listeners would suppress their pleasure or displeasure because they were intimidated by the disapproval of those sitting around him. "What will result from this scrupulous silence and continuous attention?" Stendhal asked. "That fewer people will enjoy themselves."

That future came closer in the first years of the 20th century. Toscanini succeeded in banning encores at the Metropolitan Opera, and Sir Thomas Beecham caused a stir when, after the start of applause after the first movement of Berlioz's "Harold in Italy," the conductor whirled around to cry, "Not now, you fools!" Lectures in Philadelphia by Leopold Stokowski and in Boston by Serge Koussevitsky educated American audiences somewhat more temperately on what were appropriate times to applaud.

Trust the composer

Still, the change was not universal. Until his dying days, Verdi measured his success by the way audiences cheered individual arias so that they had to be encored. As recently as the 1930s, Arthur Rubinstein, who played for audiences in London, Paris and New York, used to say that he could tell when he was having a bad night when the first movement of the Tchaikovsky failed to win him a hand of applause.

And surely there are many pieces in which the composer seems to expect applause before the end. One rule of thumb in judging such a piece is discerning how much of the spotlight the composer casts upon the performer. In the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, for example, the composer is clearly asking audiences to admire the pianist's thunderous prowess.

Another guideline is judging how self-contained an individual movement is. The lengthy, 20-minute first movement of the Tchaikovsky is filled with so much emotional variety -- from the lush melodies of the opening to the fiery drama of what follows to the majestic close -- that it can practically stand by itself. How different, for example, is Rachmaninov's Third Concerto, in which the composer has written the piece so that an audience feels compelled to applaud at the conclusion of only one movement -- the final one.

The best guideline is what the music makes us want to do. If we practically have to sit on our hands to keep from applauding, then it is probably not only appropriate for us to do so, but also something that would have pleased the composer.

Pub Date: 1/27/97

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