Why don’t we clap between movements?

4 October 2017, 17:34

Clapping in movements

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

There’s a bit of a tradition in classical music that you only clap after a piece has finished – and never in between movements. But why does this ‘rule’ actually exist?

Check out this audience, enthusiastically clapping during a cracking pop concert:


At a modern classical concert, you can’t guarantee that this display of enthusiasm won’t earn you the *tuts* of some members of the audience. But contrary to popular belief, it hasn’t always been this way.

Like the music itself, classical concert etiquette has evolved over time. In the late 18th century, classical concerts were more like small aristocratic gatherings. Composers like Mozart even expected people to talk during their concerts – and they enjoyed hearing spontaneous applause.

Individual movements were even played all over again if they received a big enough reaction.

When classical concerts became public in the 19th century, we saw the birth of claques – organised groups of professional applauders who were often paid to applaud particular performers – to which composers like Gustav Mahler strongly objected.

Mahler specified in the score of his Kindertotenlieder that its movements should not be interrupted by applause – and he wasn’t alone. In 1842 at the debut of his ‘Scottish’ Symphony, Mendelssohn explicitly asked for it to be played without a break, to avoid any interruptions. Schumann did the same for his piano and cello concertos, as well as his Symphony No.4.

Then by the time recording equipment came around in the 20th century, applauding in between movements came to be heavily frowned upon. People started to think that clapping between the movements of a symphony distracted from the unity of the piece, punctuating works with unnecessary noise on live CD recordings.

Today, it’s still considered to be a faux-pas, though not a major one.

The motivation for waiting until the end of a work to clap came from allowing people to listen to the music totally undisturbed, without the distraction of applause in between movements. 

It can’t be because of the people in the industry…

“Clapping does not bother me in the least,” says Marin Alsop, conductor of the Baltimore Symphony and São Paulo State Symphony. “When Beethoven pieces premiered, people would clap within the middle of the piece.”

“The only time I am disturbed by applause,” she tells The Independent, “is when it feels perfunctory or obligatory simply because something has concluded – for example at the end of a slow movement of a Mahler symphony.”

Chicago Symphony Orchestra bassoonist William Buchman agrees: “Unlike a lot of other forms of music, silence plays an important role in a lot of classical music.”

“The silence is as profound as some of the music, and when that silence is not allowed its space, you lose a lot of the emotional impact that the silence can otherwise generate.” (Chicago Tribune)

Perhaps, then, we need to get more comfortable with silence.

But if you can’t help bursting into spontaneous applause after the epic crescendo at the end of the first movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (and who could blame you!), ignore the disapproving tuts and go for it. 

It’s not every day you get to watch Yuja Wang smashing out a cracking Rach chord...