One of the most fascinating and often argued mannerisms is about clapping between ‘movements’ in a western classical concert. I have observed this ‘never spoken of but assumed protocol’ with great interest over many years in concert halls all over the world. I think it’s a classic case of human emotion conflicting with ancient and archaic rules.

To me, its Amazon vs. Barnes and Nobles (the book shop guys had scoffed at e-tailers) or ‘THE’ Almighty Britannia Encyclopedia vs. Wikipedia (Is the Britannica business still alive today?). You can probably think up many more examples.

Back to clapping:

For those new to this business, take Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Its divided into 4 parts (movements):

First movement: Allegro con brio
Second movement: Andante con moto
Third movement: Scherzo. Allegro
Fourth movement: Allegro

It most cases (and I say most because you will read an amazing revelation at the conclusion), the conductor performing this symphony will pause between the movements for a few seconds and then start with the next.

Why the pause?

Many reasons:

  • Each movement is a story in itself – an emotion, an expression and moods swings of low to high to low to exuberance – you need a few seconds to literally breathe between these mammoth musical chapters.
  • The conductor builds anticipation for the next movement to come
  • Older folks in the audience use that quick stop to cough, some to unwrap the noisy sweet wrapper and folks like me to whisper to my partner ‘wow or not so wow’
  • Musicians of the orchestra use that gap to turn the score sheet page, or to wipe their brow, rest their cello against their thigh or just smile at their partner.

The tragedy appears in these few seconds :-(

The ‘uninitiated’ concert goers are so overwhelmed by the conductors performance (even when he has done a bad job) that they burst out in claps just as the movement ends.

And that’s when the white hair folk freak out! It’s now a RULE that ‘thou shall not clap between movements’. The silence is used to reflect on the music that was just played and also wait with bated breath for the next movement. Thus, when the clapping starts, the elderly get into their act – they look and stare at these naïve first timers with so much contempt that the poor fellows forget to clap for the rest of the concert. In Mumbai so often there is this ‘shoo shoo’ hush that follows the claps trying to subdue the claps from continuing. The general atmosphere of concert halls has become so uptight, its like we all ‘freeze’ the minute the music starts. Statistically speaking, in 7 out of  every 10 concerts I have attended, someone claps in-between movements.

I ask – SO WHAT?

There is a very interesting school of thought that these self-imposed ‘rules’ are not what Beethoven and Mozart intended ever…. It’s a well-known fact that composers in that era were confronted by all kinds of motley crowds who thronged concert halls and clapped, jeered and did all kinds of stuff while concerts were going on.  This is why the ‘overture’ was invented – to buy time in the beginning of an operatic concert to have the crowds settle down (and also give them a sniff of the musical theme music)

If you look at the average age group of concert goers (in India at least), it’s over 70 years old. I rarely see young teenagers in concert halls ( see lots of them in jazz bars and fusion music concerts). Smaller girls and boys do make their appearances because I guess their parents have coerced them to attend the same. The business of classical music is crashing into oblivion. These strict and monastic rules will just make these young folks never enter a concert hall in their lives.

Lets just live and let live. Let the music be sacrosanct. Don’t get all caught up in the small bells and whistles that are not related to the music. If old classical music has to survive and exist, it must remember the fate of the Britannica Encyclopedias and Barnes and Nobles and accept ‘re-invention’ and not say ‘NO’.

Let me end by narrating the most enterprising approach I have seen to this problem:

In many past concerts in Mumbai including last night’s London Symphony Orchestra, the absolutely brilliant Kristjan Jarvi conducted Bernstein and Stravinsky compositions with NO breaks in between movements!! So, he actually had rehearsed with the Orchestra to simply move into movements without a single pause! I had forgotten this approach and it just struck me as a such a simple and non-controversial solution – just don’t ‘stop’ for the clapping to ‘start’!

(I would like to dedicate this blog entry to my wife Chhavi who noticed this new approach to the clapping menace and inspired me to write this piece)

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Originally posted on April 10, 2010 on rodinhood.com

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:) This reminded me of my college incident when I was pursuing PG Diploma in Advertising & PR. One of the guest lecturer showed us an Iranian movie - 'Two Women'. The dim-lit hall was submerged in pin-drop silence until 'THE END' appeared on the screen.. I mean the Last Dialogue was delivered by the protagonist  We students were so impressed and enthralled by that movie (a must watch) that automatically we started clapping. I remember hesitating before doing that.. The lecturer got so angry and said - "The director of this movie doesn't need your clapping to acknowledge her work. After such an intense movie, you should try to soak its essence by remaining silent."

And I still appreciate that and hold my clapping instinct whenever required. :) 

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