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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 1

Introduction to Music : To Clap or not to Clap

by Sarah Choukah / September 2, 2002

Version française...

Why has clapping between movements become a forbidden act?

The concert is eagerly awaited. The musicians have been rehearsing for months. The hall is an acoustic gem. The music lover is seated comfortably, completely absorbed in the performance. But now what happens? Between two sections of Debussy's Images a patter of clapping breaks out. The pianist doesn't move, focuses on the next section, then begins to play. The music lover pulls a face in the dark. Two hands clapping are enough to break his concentration and the expected pleasure of the next movement. Not everyone is aware of the convention, and one wonders why clapping between movements has become a forbidden act.

The de rigueur decorum of today's classical music concerts wasn't always so respected. In the first half of the eighteenth century, music was still a background feature of court banquets and church services. It wasn't until the advent of Philidor's Concerts spirituels, inaugurated during the French regency period in 1725, that the change gradually began and instrumental music took on the role familiar to us. The sonatas and concertos of Corelli and Vivaldi began to be appreciated by the French, and the fanatic admiration of vocalists faded away, to the benefit of composers and instrumentalists. Audiences quietened down, behaving as though they were in chapel, and only clapped once the performance was over.

It wasn't until Beethoven that the sonata acquired a revolutionary form and depth of expression that profoundly affected the public's reaction. Now the sonata was a seamless composition, with interdependent movements, not isolated themes, as in dance suites. Above all, the great Viennese master demanded more of his audience than any previous composer. His music struck a universal chord, transcending simple harmony to become a profound internal language. Beethoven demanded the greatest attention from audiences, asking for a concentration that was exceptional for the period. In this way, music became a high art with new meaning in the minds of the public.

Along with the need for audiences to concentrate more, silence became necessary in order to appreciate the music's continual flow. Every note was important, harmony had to be fully heard, and the audience was invited to feel the more complex emotions inherent in Romanticism. "The pause between movements is a link between them," says conductor and composer Steward Grant. "It underlines the cohesion between their signature keys. Brahms used this pause with particular care. In his work it emphasizes the relationship between the key at the end of a movement and the key at the beginning of the next in a way that is just as important the music itself."

A moment for reflection

Silence is a moment for reflection, as much for the composer as for the performer. It takes months of practice, embarking on this moment of silence and mentally preparing for the music to come, assuming that there is a special relationship between sound and its absence that is shared by the audience. The pause is an invitation to the listener to follow what is to come, and sharpens awareness of the differences between parts of the sonata or symphony. Between two movements, this silence becomes a moment of meditation on the conclusion just heard, and on its foreshadowing of the next.

To clap between movements can mean many things. The audience may be moved to the point of wanting the performer to know it, something that doesn't displease the musician, nor the composer who is attending the first performance of his or her music. "I'm already very grateful to people who take the trouble to come and hear my music," says composer Denis Gougeon. He isn't bothered by people clapping between movements. "In fact, I'm filled with joy when they applaud in the middle of a piece. It means that my composition has pleased them so much that they want to express their feelings right away. It's a rare occurrence."

Composer Jacques Desjardins feels the same. "The current form of contemporary music is to have pieces lasting from about ten to fifteen minutes. Some composers don't do this, but in general movements that follow one another are much more rare than in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. However, silence has a special function in contemporary music, and is an element of expression just like the music itself. Some audiences may have a different perception of what seems obvious to us as composers, and may applaud between movements or think the piece is finished when it isn't. It depends: audiences are never made up of the same people. The venue, the style of music, the performers, the country, and the cultural background of audiences are all variables in how an audience reacts. But you learn a lot from experiencing different audiences. My work wouldn't be the same without them."

Audiences vary mainly on the basis of their nationality and cultural background. Myriam Pellerin, first violin for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, has toured widely and can testify to the differences from one country to another. "In Japan people are very respectful and clap endlessly. I remember a concert where Maestro Charles Dutoit took eighteen bows. The applause was very rhythmic, not wildly enthusiastic. In Europe, audiences are generally more musically educated than in North America. Classical music is more part of daily life and schooling, and many people love it. The audience has a more critical approach and listens attentively. However, Latin countries have numerous venues where the audience often has its say before the end of the performance. In South America, for example, people don't wait to show their disapproval or, on the other hand, applaud spontaneously and generously when they are touched."

Quebecers are also quick to clap, but musicians are very clear about how they feel. Roseline Blain, founding member of the Lamalgamme Ensemble, says that performers must behave in a way that shows when clapping is out of place, and that it's up to them to preserve an attitude of concentration during a pause equal to that while playing. Excessive stiffness, however, can discourage some music lovers who may fear feeling uncomfortable. One has to remember the importance of the audience's role. The aim is not to ask more of audiences, but to guide their concentration so that they may appreciate the work and find, in silence, a new music.

Guide for the perfect clapper

Clapping can be distinctive, just as much as the timbre of a voice or the colour of eyes. No two people have exactly the same hands. However, there is an appropriate way of clapping that can allow music lovers to communicate their appreciation much more effectively. It is important to arch the palm of the right hand and curve the fingers of the left (or the reverse for left-handed people). This space created by the right hand allows for greater resonance generated by the fingers and upper left palm, resulting in a rich sound.

Happy clapping!

[Translated by Jane Brierley] 


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