When To Clap and Why

Just because I work for the Arts Council doesn’t mean I know all there is to know about the arts. In fact, here’s one of my questions: Why oh why can you only applaud at the END of a symphony? Who made the rule against clapping for each movement and why? That’s the thing about the arts. Always something to learn. Help me out here, will you?

2 Responses to "When To Clap and Why"

  1. swilson31

    Great question. The not clapping between movements of a symphony I think became The Rule as the symphony itself developed as a form into an organic whole with more connections among the movements. Stopping for applause between movements would disturb the flow of the piece. However, it wasn’t always this way and there are examples well into the 19th century of the audience applauding so much at the end of a movement that the movement was encored. The rule should not, I believe, be treated as sacrosanct and certainly anyone who is so caught up in a performance that they cannot help but applaud should never be shushed or looked down upon by other audience members. As a classical music presenter, whenever I hear applause between movements, I think “Great! Someone new to classical music.”

  2. cyberbassdave

    I’m not sure how “the rule” was established, but certainly its rationale has to be preserving the artistic mood of the piece, whatever genre it is. Sometimes a composer wants the audience to experience a contrast between movements. In some works, sections join across a single measure of music; obviously the composer did not intend an interruption at this point. Clapping at the wrong times is a common mistake of the uninitiated; even an experienced audience can be caught off-guard by a composer whose work is “outside the box.”

    One major clue about when to clap is to watch the conductor’s arms. When the music stops but the conductor’s arms do not drop but stay raised, do not clap; it is only a pause between sections or movements; if you look carefully, the performers will not have relaxed, but will be “at attention.” Now this doesn’t work all the time. Often a conductor drops his/her arms at the end of a symphony movement or other long passage; the performers will relax and catch their breath; but you should still not clap. Safest thing is to look at the concert program and count the major subdivisions of a piece. A symphony usually has 4 movements, a concerto or sonata usually 3. Don’t plan on applauding until all the movements have been performed.

    One of my most humorous memories involving this issue occurred just a couple years ago singing Messiah with Downtown Singers. In the Saturday night performance, people began applauding after each section. We could see Alan Crabb becoming increasingly agitated by this. He wouldn’t interrupt the performance to correct people, but he tried waving his hand behind his back a couple times to shush folks. I think everyone in the chorus was thinking the same thing — where can Alan make such a short joint between sections that people can’t clap? We all thought ahead and figured it out. The alto solo “O Thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” ends mid-measure; the measure is completed by the soprano chorus with a forte entrance. The sopranos were ready. As the alto ended her solo, Alan’s finger shot out cueing the sopranos, who jumped on the entrance before anyone could put their hands together. We never had a problem after that!