During my recent visit to the San Francisco Symphony, the concert featured string serenades by Mozart, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky. At the conclusion of the first (very famous) movement of “Eine kleine Nachtmusic,” the audience broke into spontaneous applause. Now, every classical music fan knows that you’re not supposed to do that! As the Romanza began, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d get applause again when the movement ended. Well, as the section came to a close, I got a reminder of what usually happens: a barrage of coughing! Somehow, 10% of the audience had managed to stifle their coughs until the exact moment that the music stopped. As the rest of the program continued, the same scenario unfolded over and over. When the music paused, 250 patrons immediately began their 15 second coughing jag while the rest of the audience shifted in their seats uncomfortably or quietly tittered. While I smiled at the people around me who were giggling at the people coughing, I came to the realization that the symphony had become a completely new interactive experience. But not in a good way! Listening to this awkward, distracting call and response throughout the evening, I had an “Aha!” moment. Why not applaud between the movements? It had happened during the Mozart and we all came out unscathed! Simply put, if we can’t have the short moment of reflective silence that’s supposed to go there, why not instead share our appreciation for the music and the fine job that the orchestra is doing?
Up until about 100 years ago, it was the norm to clap between movements! Here’s a link to a wonderfully detailed examination of when and why concert goers stopped applauding between movements by Alex Ross. If you want to truly understand 20th century music, you should to read his incredible book The Rest Is Noise.