Cheering news for clapping concert-goers

Should audiences be 'allowed' to applaud between movements at classical concerts?

During Anne-Sophie Mutter's violin concert for Abu Dhabi Classics back in January, a telling incident occurred. Mutter came to the end of the first movement of Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, an alternately soupy and admonishing exercise in domesticated Romanticism with which she did everything one could, and a ripple of polite applause passed through the Emirates Palace auditorium. "Three more movements!" Mutter said through a fixed smile.

Using all her great charisma she set about the second movement and there was another smattering of applause, less certain this time, plus a quieter murmur of disapproval and a bit of significant staring from one end of the hall to the other. The violinist held her tongue. So it went for the next movement. Then the last one came and went and it was the end of the concert, and again people seemed unsure whether to clap, and there was a painful moment while everyone tried to find their places on the great unwritten stave of concert etiquette. A recurring difficulty here in the UAE, where a thousand cultures mingle. But what to do about it?

As it turns out, it isn't a problem just for us. Last week Alex Ross, the classical music critic at the New Yorker and author of the much-admired musical history The Rest Is Noise, gave a talk at London's Wigmore hall about the principle that one should keep quiet between the movements of a longer piece. If Barack Obama, identified by Ross as "a law professor turned commander-in-chief", says he can't get his head around the rule, what chance have the rest of us?

In his talk Ross took, as you might expect from his book, a panoramic view of the question. "The classical concert of the 18th and early 19th centuries," he observed, "was radically different from the rather staid and timid affair of today." Mozart expected uproar after his big moments, rather like the applause that greets each solo in a jazz club. He wrote to his father after the premiere of his Paris Symphony: "The audience had, because of the quiet beginning, shushed each other, as I expected they would, and then came the forte - well, hearing it and clapping was one and the same. I was so delighted, I went right after the Sinfonie to the Palais Royal - bought myself an ice cream, prayed a rosary as I had pledged - and went home."

As Ross tells it, the no-clapping rule started with the famous "Bayreuth hush" imposed by Wagner, and the quasi-sacral burden that music assumed during the late 19th century. Symphonies brought the listener into contact with the absolute; they were seamless, integrated works of sublime genius and it was the audience's job to jolly well shut up and listen until they were over. A German pomposity was exported as an oppressive ritual. Ross has misgivings about it, as he does over many aspects of concert culture: "The vaguely Edwardian costumes, the convention-centre lighting schemes, the aggressive affectlessness of the average professional musician, especially in America." His concern is not new.

"At first," he told the Wigmore audience, "many listeners resisted the rule, regarding it as a display of arrogance on the part of a new breed of superstar maestro." Civilised dissent continued through the 20th century. Ross quoted a mocking letter to The New York Times, sent in 1927: "See, I not only have my big orchestra well in hand, but I can also, by a mere gesture, control a manifold larger audience!" In 1966 the pianist Arthur Rubinstein said: "It's barbaric to tell people it is uncivilised to applaud something you like." But then, as Ross noted, Rubinstein himself used to do exactly that.

The thing is, one can see why composers and performers might have mixed feelings. Sometimes a bit of enthusiastic validation must be rather nice. At others, no matter how fashionable and democratic their ideas about art, musicians will prefer their audience to pipe down and concentrate. Ross's own view and his recommendation go further. Appreciation, he suggested, ought to be tailored to the demands of the piece itself. He quoted the American pianist Emanuel Ax, another recent visitor to Abu Dhabi: "I think that if there were no 'rules' about when to applaud, we in the audience would have the right response almost always."

Ross concluded: "I dream of the concert hall becoming a more vital, unpredictable environment, fully in thrall to the composers who mapped our musical landscapes and the performers who populate them... [W]hat if a rock band wants to make us think and a composer wants to make us dance? Music should be a place where our expectations are shattered." This is an interesting idea, and one that we in the UAE may be in an excellent position to test. The hidebound conventions of the Edwardian concert hall have not yet taken root. Perhaps we should get rid of them altogether? Visiting performers could be briefed in advance about Abu Dhabi's enthusiastic crowds. The audiences themselves could be invited to clap or cheer or dance when they felt like it.

The country is in an unusual position in its cultural development. It has little history with western music, but it can afford the best and choose the bits it likes, forming its own etiquette or letting benign anarchy reign, according to taste. Whichever choice we make, however, one thing is clear: a rule observed only by some is a recipe for discord.