When the Proms clapping has to stop – or start | Letters

Readers give their views on when and when not to applaud classical music performances

I am a huge admirer of Chi-chi Nwanoku and all she has achieved. But her article (Clap when you want: let’s hear it for a less stuffy Proms, 21 July) advocating a happy-clappy approach to concerts was wrong. I was at the Prom in question. Like many of the concerts this year the programme commemorated the ending of the first world war. The opening of Holst’s Planets, Mars, the Bringer of War, was given an intense and moving account. The silence at the end was a profoundly emotional one. And it was into that silence that a small amount of applause broke the spell.

The objection to intrusive applause at moments like that is nothing to do with old farts. The Prom at the Roundhouse the following Saturday afternoon was brimming with a younger audience. Again the music dealt, intensely and emotionally, with the legacy of the war. There was no applause at all between sections of the music. You could have heard a pin drop.
Robert Bruce

• Chi-chi Nwanoku has a point. But in welcoming applause at the end of a movement, “particularly a heady one that ends on a high”, she hints that there may be a rub. Whatever the conventions observed by a composer’s contemporaries, the quiet transition from one movement to the next within a single work may be part of the musical and emotional experience. Applause could only impair appreciation of the intense and inspired transition between the second and third movements of Beethoven’s Eroica, surely?

Chi-chi Nwanoku cites The Planets, and I for one would accept that no musical spell is broken if an audience applauds between, say, Mars and Venus. But, to take a near-contemporary work, the same would not apply to applause between the movements of Sibelius’s 4th Symphony.

So maybe we should reverse the current presumption in favour of silence, but only on condition that the musicians performing at any given concert ask their audience not to applaud between the movements of a work which is best experienced without interruption. I don’t think that’s being “snooty”.
David Clark
Poole, Dorset

• It is intellectual snobbery at its worst to maintain that one must listen to the entire work in silence, otherwise it is not being appreciated as a whole. And, as Chi-chi Nwanoku mentions, before the 20th century, cheering and clapping between – and during – movements was commonplace. Applause for a well-played solo in jazz is acceptable and shows that the audience is engaged. So why not in other forms of music?

I like to watch ballet. Audiences in Brighton spontaneously applaud dancing that they are impressed with – even before the scene has ended, and the music is still playing. I wonder if the purists regard this as a display of uncivilised behaviour.
Patrick Billingham
Brighton, East Sussex

• I completely agree with Chi-chi Nwanoku and would add that the fundamental purpose of music should not be forgotten – to entertain.
Wendy Eastaway
Midleton, Co Cork, Ireland• I applaud Chi-Chi Nwanoku’s wish to make the Proms less stuffy, but not her proposal. Clapping, a recognised expression of approval, is limited in terms of what it can convey. It is fine at times, and in response to certain pieces. But classical music gives voice to a huge spectrum of moods and emotions, many of which cannot appropriately or meaningfully be greeted by applause.

Encouraging this plays into the Classic FM-isation of music. Its approach of playing classical “singles” reinforces to those less familiar the notion that this is what classical music is: bite-sized chunks of the most famous bits, preferably ones recognisable from TV advertising, unfailingly upbeat in mood, or “relaxing” so as not to challenge or perplex. Of course we want to clap after each of these, as we enjoyed knowing them, but don’t need to worry about what they were torn from, what came before or should come after, or how they fit into a larger whole that might be anything but upbeat or relaxing. 

I fall back on the probably apocryphal but pointed story of a performance of Mahler’s 6th Symphony by Herbert Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. At the end, the whole place was so awed and shattered that, without prior arrangement or instruction, the audience sat in silence for a few moments, then, with the orchestra, very quietly got up and went, leaving a motionless figure alone on the podium with his head bowed.
Ben Entwistle
Crewe, Cheshire

• Clapping is much appreciated by all musicians at the end of their performance, the louder the better. However, while I cannot speak for all soloists, most I suspect are deeply buried in the music and are mentally preparing to move with flowing continuity from one movement to the next, as I’m sure was the composer’s intention. So to suddenly have their deep concentration broken by raucous clapping is surely disruptive at best and distressing for them at worst.
Gillian Williams
Nenthead, Cumbria

• As a concert-goer of 50-odd years I would never be so rude as shushing those who clap between movements, but that doesn’t mean that I like it. Surely loosening up the conventions so as not to “stifle natural human responses” might also lead to the things that Chi-chi Nwanoku doesn’t want, such as “chat, eating, mobile phone conversations”. The need to keep a silence between movements is especially true of a symphony of such solemnity as Shostakovich’s 7th, the Leningrad, that was interrupted last Monday. There is a tendency these days to emphasise the popular and ignore the classical music world, or present it as elitist. This certainly wasn’t the case when I first started going to the Proms in the 60s (from my council flat in Manor Park), when concerts had a much larger audience of young people, and people came from a wide variety of backgrounds. As for applause being often tame and polite, that has not been our experience when attending concerts recently.
Marie Paterson
Nuneaton, Warwickshire

• The other day I queued outside the Royal Albert Hall, then stood inside in the arena for several hours. I was surrounded by hundreds of people: from school students to the very old, sporting clothing from the workaday to just-in-from-sunbathing informal, talking in a range of British and non-British accents. People I interacted with were unfailing friendly and chatty (including the RAH staff and even the long-running regular Proms ticket tout). All in all, I’d be hard-pushed to think of a public event I’ve attended recently which is less deserving of the description “stuffy”.

The writer is confusing stuffiness with thoughtfulness and seriousness. I go to live performances of classical music not to hear it, but to listen to it. (In the same way as I don’t want just to see visual art, but to look at it.) Some classical music is simply light entertainment; some consists of fully independent sections. But much is conceived as a whole, with a powerful intensity and train of thought that warrants mental effort so as to more fully appreciate (and, yes, enjoy) it: in these cases, applause between movements is inappropriate and destructive of the experience – it is impolite and thoughtless.

The only “stuffy” people I spot at Proms concerts are those in expensive seats who seem more intent on dressing up and being seen than on concentrating on the music – and they’re precisely the ones doing the self-indulgent applauding.
Albert Beale

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