Should applause be spontaneous or dictated by social norms? 

I first experienced the classism in applauding Western Classical music when attending a concert by a touring German Orchestra in Chennai, India. Chennai is the capital of Carnatic music, the classical music of South India. The venue for the concert was The Music Academy, a hallowed space like Carnegie Hall in the US. Before the German Orchestra’s performance, the Indian hostess explained to the audience (primarily Indian) that Western classical music was different from Indian classical music. She requested us to hold our applause until the entire concerto was over and not clap after each movement. 

Although most of the audience, like me, was listening to a Western music concert for the first time, this instruction seemed simple enough and almost borderline insulting. As refined connoisseurs of Indian classical music, surely, we would know when a piece concluded. But once the orchestra began playing (beautifully), many in the audience enthusiastically applauded after each movement. Each movement seemed like a stand-alone piece to our musically trained ears with a well-defined ending. While the orchestra graciously half bowed, the two German women sitting in front of me shook their heads in disbelief throughout the concert. They seemed unable to get over the shock of the blasphemy they had just witnessed. My friend who was accompanying me knew the Western Music etiquette and stopped me from clapping after movements. Still, the German women’s disdain for the Indian audience’s ignorance left a deep impression on me.

After I moved to the US and began attending Western classical concerts here, I was surprised that I knew more about the applause etiquette than the average American audience. My most recent experience was at Carnegie Hall. The superlative Orpheus Chamber Orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s Chamber Symphony No 1 in D major so movingly that many audience members stood up to applaud after each movement. The purists in the audience violently shook their heads; some even waved their hands like conductors willing the audience to stop clapping. Seeing the audience so divided that night, I decided to look up the origins of this strange etiquette to which only the classical elite are privy.

Music critic Alex Ross’ “Hold that applause”* provides interesting details about this practice. Restrained applause is a recent practice initiated by Wagner, Mendelssohn, and Schuman, who wanted the symphony to be played without breaks so that the beautiful beginnings and endings of the movements would not get lost in the applause. On the other hand, Mozart and Beethoven encouraged applause throughout their pieces to judge whether a piece of music was working. Ross rightly points out that this arcane practice needs to stop because the music often demands applause (he cites Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique’s third movement as an example). Ross criticizes this curb your enthusiasm rule as alienating, especially for the young audiences. 

After World War II, Ross says that upper-class and middle-class Americans embraced the symphony orchestra as a symbol of value in the European tradition. But the no applause rule originated in Germany (little wonder that those German ladies in Chennai were so upset with our out-of-turn applause). Ross quotes pianist Emmanuel Ax, who says he would rather hear the audience’s applause after movements than their nervous coughing and shifting, clearly manifesting suppressed emotions. I agree: the coordinated coughs through the audience after movements are hilarious; who knew so many people had a coughing problem?    

Why does having a refined taste in classical music go against the grain of human emotions? Operas do not have such restrictions. You can applaud after an aria, and the actors pause during their applause before continuing with the opera, which is not an easy task. Preserving continuity is an argument for silence between movements, but I have seen several musicians use the gaps between movements to tune their instruments, wipe their brows, and chit chat: hardly the physical cues suggesting continuity. Also, a symphony or concerto’s various movements usually have contrasting emotions. Applauding only at the end robs us of appreciating the joy, tranquility, passion, and sadness as and when we experience them. Restraining the natural urge to applaud is like wearing a tight corset that does not allow you to breathe freely. In many concerts, the sum is often less than the parts. Even behavioral science research indicates that we remember the most recent events due to the recency effect. I have seen performances not getting the appreciation they deserve because the ending was not as sublime as the in-between movements.

Let us save our restraint for conflict and war. Let music be a space where we can allow ourselves to be moved uninhibitedly.

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