Un "théâtre à l'italienne" parisien ©Corbis
Un "théâtre à l'italienne" parisien ©Corbis

A little story about the applause in classical music

The delicate question of clapping during the concerts of classical music still stir up emotion and irritation. The art of clapping hands is not natural: over the centuries, the audience has changed and so did its behavior.

It is your first concert of classical music. Nervous and impatient, you sit down and wait to listen to the 41st symphony of Mozart. After ten minutes or so, you hear the orchestra roar, ready to finish with success its ascension towards the hight pitched notes. The conductor holds the last note, his baton in the air before letting his arm fall down, along his body. He turns the page of the partition.

There is a heavy silence in the room. A few rows away, the faces are focused, the hands are resting gently on the knees. The audience tries not to commit the dreadful error of clapping the first movement.

But, where does that precise code of the classical music dictating the audience not to clap when they feel like it come from? Why do venues encourage silence, so much so that they sometimes give away mints to prevent coughing fits?

“They clap for Gluck”

Silence is gold... But it wasn't so precious a few centuries ago. The concerts of the baroque era look nothing like what we experience today. Bach presented his pieces either at church, or in homes where people met to eat, drink, spend a little time between friends, catch the last rumors, and incidentally, listen to music.

The same behavior can also be seen during the time of Mozart, when people could clap whenever they felt like it. During a stay in Paris, the composer wrote to his father in a letter taken from the Discours musical by the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt: "Right in the middle of the first Allegro, there is a part I was sure was going to please: all the audience was transported... and there was a huge applause... As I knew perfectly while writing it the effect it would have, I put it a second time, at the end..."

Not only claps are welcome, but they are provoked by the composers themselves. It is true the Parisian audience in the 18th century was known to make a lot a noise during the concerts. Even in the sacred places, the crowd wanted to cheer the pieces with shouts and claps.

In his academic work Applaudissements et Grande Musique, Jérôme-Henri Cailleux tells the words of the literary man Louis-Sébastien Mercier dans Tableau de Paris published in 1782 :

"They clap for Gluck and make more noise that all the instruments of the orchestra that we can't hear anymore. [...] Sometimes, those clapping hands reach frenzy; for some time, they were accompanied by the words bravo, bravissimo. We also beat with our feet and canes; dreadful deafening racket, that cruelly shocks the sensitive and reasonable soul who sometimes is the subject of that cheering".

This testimony shows the lengths the French public, and especially in Paris, is ready to go, to show its enthusiasm or its disappointment regarding the pieces that are presented. A behavior that seemed out of place at the time in comparison to the audiences in the other European countries, that stayed quiet and calm during the concerts.

Paris, champion of claps

From 1830, the concert changed of form. So did the music. Thus, the "great French opera" was born on the Parisian stages, like the Académie Royale de Musique (that became the Opéra de Paris) or the Opéra-comique.

The 19th century saw the birth of the romantic music. The composers were no longer seeking to entertain the crowd, as their predecessors did, but to move people. Schumann wrote in 1835: "For many years, I dreamt of organizing concerts for the deaf-mute people. That way, we could learn from them how to behave properly during a concert, especially when the music is beautiful". 

The romantic composers think their pieces as a sole work. Mendelssohn for example wished his Third Symphony to be played without any pause to avoid the "usual long interruptions". The same ones where the audience of Mozart and Gluck clapped and shouted to cheer the orchestra and the composer.

Those new ways of writing and listening to music brought a bit of confusion in the venues. Does the people have to let the music guide them? Do we have to clap the opera arias or not? What about the masterful endings?

To help the public, the Parisian venues invented the "clappers". Those people had to clap when appropriate to let the audience know what they had to do with their hands. This usual custom of the 19th century was quite disputed. At the time, opera houses were visited by a bourgeois audience. The clappers, as essential as they might be for the most often non music-lover spectators, were looked unfavorably: they were bad dressed and therefore, easily spotted among the pretty dresses and the top hats.

Also called "Romans" because they were placed like a troop of legionaries on the stalls, the clappers were indirectly managed by the opera direction. They knew when to clap, and even more important, when no to. A technique widely used to make a singer understand when he is not welcome on stage: if people don't clap, they don't like you.

End clap

In 1913, opera put an end to the role of the clapper, after having transformed his role into a permanent job. The 20th is the period of music lovers, and music lovers do not need to be told when to clap. They know when to clap, when to whistle or when to leave the room...

The arrival of the music lover matches the creation in 1881 of the Société des Nouveaux Concerts by conductor Charles Lamoureux. The orchestra played music of its time, and more particularly the one of Wagner's, key figure in the history of applause.

Once again, the audience appreciation goes with the music. Richard Wagner gives another vision of the opera. His work is not a way to entertain but a sacred drama that needs to be respected to be appreciated. Thus, in his Bayreuth Festival Theatre, Wagner imposed silence for the first time in the history of music.

"I've already said it is strictly forbidden to clap during the representation, we could count the breathings. I advise the spectator with a cold or suffering from a catarrh against coming into the Bayreuth temple, they would be torn into pieces. The silence is bigger than in a church, not one word can be confessed, not even in a whisper, to one's right neighbor, without being strongly shushed by the left one; it would be a profanation of the religious center of which Wagner is the pontiff sovereign". Denis Magnus, critic in Gil Blas, the 6th of August 1882. 

Wagner built a new show: the audience was plunged into darkness. We were far from the society opera where people came to be seen. In the Bayreuth Festival Theatre, the orchestra was hidden so the spectators would not be distracted by the musicians or the conductor. And silence was required.

Not used to this new concert codes, the crowd was lost... So was Wagner. The academic Jérôme-Henri Cailleux tells the critic of Léon Leroy, from the journal Le Figaro, who attended on July 1882 to the premiere of Parsifal in Bayreuth in the presence of the composer. At the end of the first act, the audience clapped with enthusiast. The journalist told:

"After the second act, there was a new burst of unanimous applause in the venue. Wagner stood up from the seat he had in the gallery called "of the sovereigns" and ordered the audience not to clap. The clapping stopped as if my magic. After the third act, the audience, respectful of the master's wishes, stayed silent. Then Wagner, with all the logic that characterizes him when it is not about music, stood up, raging with anger, and ordered the audience to clap the actors. The venue crumbled under the applause".

Around 1900, Mahler followed the music master's footsteps and asked the latecomers to wait for the interlude to enter the room, and that the arias shouldn't be clapped. Some witnessed the composer turning his head at the slightest whisper and giving dirty looks to the author of the crime.

Even Mozart doesn't get as many claps as before 

If Mahler and Wagner are the precursors of these "music temples" where shouts of joy and unexpected applause are forbidden, a unexplainable change occurred in the concert venues after 1945 .

At the time, the clapping stopped between the movements of the symphonies or of the concertos. Only the opera, where loud manifestations were allowed after big arias, kept the spirit of the 18 and 19th centuries.

Jérôme-Henri Cailleux offers an hypothesis to explain that drastic behavioral change: the arrival of radio. For the first time, the music lovers could listen to a piece in its entirety. The symphony was not disturbed by claps at every movement. They listened from the first to the last movement, without any interruption.

Records also allowed a more intimate and silent listening of the music. Music lovers became real professionals and transformed music into a sacred art that needs to be listened to in silence.

An anecdote from 1974 proves that turn was irreversible and concerned all kind of music. The Requiem of Mozart was played in the Saint-Roch church by conductor Sergiu Celibidache. A critic from Le Monde, Jacques Longchampt, wrote: "The audience is told no to clap, and has to observe a minute of silence between each piece, and why? For an execution that is slow, interminable, carefully frosty..."

At the conductor's request, the crowd has to remain silent. The ancient composers are payed by people who did not know the golden are of a loud and alive audience, who expresses their emotions during the concerts. Therefore, in the second half of the 20th century some artists, like the soloist or the conductors, were involved in the death of clapping during the pieces or between the movements. They wanted the silence to the respect of music, and for their own focus. 

Is the new generation ready to clap?

This law of silence is often brought up to question today, in the favor of new forms of concert, more free and less uptight, thanks to the arrival of a new generation. On the 28th of January 2016, the premiere for the youth of Il Trovatore by Verdi was given at the Opéra Bastille. As they sometimes do for premieres at the Opéra de Paris, the crowd is composed of people that are not older than 28. The most part is coming to the opera for the first time and does not know all the rules of classical music.

Not to upset anyone, the claps are shy at the beginning of the show. Until a beautiful aria sung by Anna Netrebko comes along... One "bravo" rings in the crowd and launches a burst of applause in the audience. Until the end of the opera, bravos and claps fall at every virtuoso aria of the piece of Verdi.

That new crowd, who doesn't know music well, is only driven by its instinct, its heart and above all, by music. Never mind the rules, the production is acclaimed and the audience is delighted to be able to share its joy without any restrain or code.

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