All of us love applause, and so we should – it means that the listener LIKES us! So we should welcome applause whenever it comes. And yet, we seem to have set up some very arcane rules as to when it is actually OK to applaud. I have been trying to find out exactly when certain listeners and performers decided that applause between movements would not be “allowed”, or at least would be frowned upon, but nobody seems to have been willing to admit that they were the culprit. Certainly when a composer like Beethoven wrote the symphonies and piano concertos that we hear today in the concert hall, he himself expected that if a movement ended with a flourish, such as the first movement of the 5th piano concerto, the audience would leap to its collective feet and let the composer (and pianist) know that they had triumphed. Mozart often wrote to his family that certain variations or sections of pieces were so successful that they had to be encored immediately, even without waiting for the entire piece to end.
I really hope we can go back to the feeling that applause should be an emotional response to the music, rather than a regulated social duty. 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. On the other hand, sometimes I wish that applause would come just a bit later, when a piece like the Brahms 3rd Symphony comes to an end – it is so beautifully hushed that I feel like holding my breath in the silence of the end. 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, and if we feel like expressing approval, we should be allowed to, ANYTIME! Just one favor – even if you don’t like a concert of mine, please PLEASE applaud at the end anyway.