The History of (Not) Clapping

The Guardian reprinted an excerpt from a talk Alex Ross recently gave at the Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS). Full text can be found on the RPS website. The subject of Ross’ talk was the history of applause suppression in classical music.

There are some amusing anecdotes like Wagner being hissed at for applauding his Parsifal. But for the most part it is a tale of the gradual socialization of people away from their impulses and how this conflicted state manifests. Ross notes the very week an interview appeared in which Arthur Rubenstein said “It’s barbaric to tell people it is uncivilized to applaud something you like,” Rubenstein hushed an audience who started clapping after the first movements of Mozart concertos.

The history of how these attitudes developed over time is actually really interesting. I was intrigued by Ross’ citation of how “the entry for “applause” in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910-11) observes: “The reverential spirit which abolished applause in church has tended to spread to the theatre and the concert-room, largely under the influence of the quasi-religious atmosphere of the Wagner performances at Baireuth.” Perhaps this is another reason religion and theater have so many similarities.

Ultimately, I would prefer to be in that place one often is when reading history where you wonder at the strange practices of your forebearers, rather than wondering how the practice has endured so long. Though Ross says there has always been resistance:

“In 1927, a letter to the New York Times mocked the practice: “See, I not only have my big orchestra well in hand, but I can also, by a mere gesture, control a manifold larger audience!” The composer and commentator Daniel Gregory Mason sardonically wrote, “After the Funeral March of the Eroica, someone suggested, Mr. Stokowski might at least have pressed a button to inform the audience by (noiseless) illuminated sign: ‘You may now cross the other leg.’”

Of course, Ross acknowledges that absence of sound is as important to some musical compositions as the music is. He notes Beethoven’s Ninth needs silence prior to beginning to create the required atmosphere. But early on in his speech, he submits that not all compositions have the same needs. Some works hint at and even demand applause of the audience.

“Indeed, in my view, the chief limitation of the classical ritual is its prescriptive quality; it supposes that all great works of music are essentially the same, that they can be placed upon a pedestal of a certain shape. What I would like to see is a more flexible approach, so that the nature of the work itself dictates the nature of the presentation—and, by extension, the nature of the response.”

Ross offers many suggestions about what is to be done, but it is his last paragraph that really caught me (my emphasis)

“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. The great paradox of modern musical life, whether in the classical or pop arena, is that we both worship our idols and, in a way, straitjacket them. We consign them to cruelly specific roles: a certain rock band is expected to loosen us up, a certain composer is expected to ennoble us. Ah, Mozart; yeah, rock and roll. But what 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.”

When I read this last week, I intended to make this my Monday entry. However, upon seeing the Kenny Endo performance I described yesterday, I knew I had to talk about that experience as a prelude to this entry.

I thought about all the 10,000+ hours of practice rule that Endo and Semba had adhered to in order to attain their current level of mastery. I was thinking that Semba’s kabuki debut at 10 years old really wasn’t too much different than the route many symphony musicians have taken. They start working on their instruments as children and have thousands of hours under their belts by adulthood. And their reward is being straitjacketed into the role that Ross describes here.

Perhaps it is just a stereotype of Japanese culture that I am operating under. But I imagine Semba’s father might have been very concerned about his son possibly abandoning or at least not living up to the quality expected of the family that founded a famous music school when he began to seriously pursue playing Western music. Obviously, the son earned his master’s license, (Semba is his name achieved upon mastery, his real name is Takahashi), but part of me wonders if the father was always as accepting as the son says he was. Regardless, he is having a ball exhibiting his mastery in both classical and contemporary musical forms on two different sets of percussion instruments.

I have, however, been around enough to know that musicians are bound by expectations as strong as those I am, perhaps incorrectly, attributing to Semba’s family. I have heard stories of guys who would play with an orchestra then walk out the back door and do a club gig. How many bass students today are advised to spend the summers playing jazz or blues so that they build a deep base of alternative techniques and how to improvise over the years? And how many of them are told if they don’t practice or attend a summer conservatory they will never be good enough to get a spot playing music that even Presidents of the United States need to have clapping coaches to attend?

My experience this weekend got me thinking. If we are going to start kids on the 10,000 step path to mastery, they should be able to wow people in the broadest spectrum of music possible. Part of this is selfish on my part because I really think a lot of the pop music today stinks to high heaven. There are only so many orchestra slots available and I have read that the margin of difference between the person who gets in and those that don’t is pretty slim. I figure if those that don’t make it can play other genres of music, they will supplant a good portion of the flash in the pan acts we got these days and even the music for the lowest common denominator won’t be half bad.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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