If you flip to the second-to-last page of a concert program at the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra, you will find a warning: “In a multi-movement work, it is customary to wait until the end of the last movement to applaud, so as not to break the concentration of the performers.” According the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, the note’s origins are a mystery—it has been in the program “for as long as anyone at the PSO can remember,” leaving us without the option to ask its author to substantiate his claim. Waiting to applaud is customary since when? So as not to break the concentration of what performers? Emanuel Ax, who himself will appear with the PSO this summer, asks for just the opposite during his performances: “I am always a little taken aback when I hear the first movement of a concerto which is supposed to be full of excitement, passion, and virtuoso display (like the Brahms or Beethoven Concertos), and then hear a rustling of clothing, punctuated by a few coughs; the sheer force of the music calls for a wild audience reaction.”
Classical music performance is predicated upon the ideal of preserving centuries-old art forms; the nuances of receiving this art, however, are harder to maintain. A movement or thematic episode that was provocative 200 years ago may now be cliché or antique. The avant-garde, when played on loop, unravels into kitsch; Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” becomes Elmer Fudd’s “Kill the Wabbit.”
And as the PSO’s no-applause decree shows, it is not just the connotations of art that change, but also the etiquette of receiving that art. In Mozart’s time, it was expected that an audience would cheer at their favorite parts of a piece, and certainly that they would erupt into applause in the pause after an especially engaging movement. Mozart wrote to his friends about pieces that, by audience demand, had to be encored immediately. He famously wrote to his father about a particular part of his “Paris” Symphony which prompted a “tremendous burst of applause” when that passage was revisited during a “da capo” section (a repeat of material from the beginning).
Today, scholars have no idea which passage Mozart was referring to (though we all have our guesses, which reveal our own tastes more than Mozart’s). What is significant is not that this fabulous Da Capo is some elusive moment that today’s audience cannot hear, but rather it is any number of moments in the piece that today’s audience cannot respond to with the abandon of an 18th-century Parisian audience. The understanding that the audience would engage with and respond to the music was part of Mozart’s composition process, as evidenced by his considerations and predictions of their tastes. If classical music performance aims to respect what is “customary,” to remain true to the composer, who are we (or the program writers at PSO) to deny the composer what Mozart calls “the effect it would surely produce”?
And yet, these days a shout of “Da Capo!” from the audience would result in the immediate removal of the uncultured heckler. (Unless, of course, he disguised his call in a whomping cough during the pause between movements that once allowed room for the audience’s reactions but have now become awkward, makeshift cough breaks). Perhaps if we were allowed to express our enjoyment of the music throughout, as in Mozart’s day, rather than after sitting in stiff silence for two hours, Mozart’s elusive passage will make itself more obvious. The Da Capo mystery cannot be solved without the crucial audience dynamic—the collective consciousness in which we feed off each others’ enjoyment, in which we take clues from others about when to laugh during a comedy show, when to cheer during a political rally, and when to hack up a lung during an orchestra concert (if not between movements, then during the haunting pianissimo section of a RomanceLarghetto movement). Emanuel Ax notes, “I think that if there were no “rules” about when to applaud, we in the audience would have the right response almost always. Most composers trust their listeners to respond at the right time…” The composition and those who perform it on stage constitute only half the musical performance equation. To silence the audience is to silence the most essential instrument in a symphony.