Clapping at the Proms

15th July 2009 | Concerts, Daily Life, Musings | 0 comments

Controversy in the press about whether Proms audiences should be discouraged from clapping so much. What’s under the spotlight is the Prommers’ habit of clapping in between movements, and the growing sport of racing each other to be the first to applaud vociferously when they recognise the closing chords of a piece. The classical music editor of Time Out thinks that things have got out of hand – if that’s not a misleading phrase in the context!

Those on the other side of the argument have pointed out that audiences used to clap between movements in Mozart’s day and, in fact, right up until the twentieth century when a different habit emerged. As classical music and popular music became separate strands (more’s the pity), it became the done thing to remain silent between movements at a classical concert, and to wait until the whole work had finished – even then, often leaving a sliver of reflective silence between the end of the piece and the applause. Performers usually welcome these en route silences, because they create a more fertile ground in which to work. There are usually links – emotional, thematic, structural – between movements, and clapping can break the fragile tissue which holds the movements together in a greater whole.

As a performer myself, I have no ethical objections to people clapping to express their pleasure, but in practice I admit I find it jarring when I’m immersed in the performance of a long work. On the one hand, of course, I very much want people to feel at home in concerts. On the other hand, I don’t want them to feel free to chop up something precious into lots of little bits. Nor do I want them to stop others in the audience from sinking into the music.

One of the problems is that people have got used to music being fired at them in three- or four-minute chunks all day long by entertainment media. Longer pieces of music have begun to seem a little nerve-racking. And we have become more uncomfortable with silence. We’ve got used to radio stations and TV programmes where, the very second something finishes, someone has to speak. Nothing can be allowed to finish in peace, leaving time for digestion. How many times have I finished watching some moving piece of TV drama and been shocked by an announcer’s voice bursting cheerfully in over the closing credits with news of the next programme? It seems as though everyone is afraid of silence. Yet silence is surely music’s favourite partner.


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