Let there be clapping
While paging through Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music yesterday, my eye caught an unexpected entry (between “Anzoletti, Marco” and “Apponyi, Count”):
Waiting to applaud until the end of the work is called an innovation of late–and this book was published in 1929! Mr. Cobbett prefers clapping and even encores of individual movements of a sonata or quartet. Born in 1847, the editor is so old-fashioned that he sounds radical.
Every time I read a concert report that mentions clapping between movements and demands for encores of movements, I wonder. Even though I know it is documented, it is so alien to our behavior today that I have a hard time believing it. And that it continued so far into the twentieth century, at least in Britain! That is news to me.
I read about hissing as well as applauding recently, while going through Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s reports on Berlin in Dwight’s Journal of Music. In 1859 Thayer was living in Berlin, researching Beethoven’s biography. In February he went to one of Liebig’s orchestral concerts (which were the predecessor to the Bilse concerts starting in 1867 and the Philharmonic’s Popular Concerts that began in 1882). The performance of a “Fest Overture upon Two American National Airs” of “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail, Columbia” elicited
to my surprise, a hearty encore, some counter hisses, which mean here, as at home, nothing more than ‘No.’ Renewed claps — renewed hisses; the claps have it, decidedly — but Liebig goes on to ‘Scherzo from Summer Night’s Dream, Mendelssohn.'”1“Musical Correspondence,” Dwight’s Journal of Music 14 (1859): 298.
In this case, Thayer tells us, hissing indicates being against a repeat of the movement, as it does at home (i.e., Boston). However, at another concert he attended a few weeks earlier, the hissing was definitely intended to express disapproval of the music. The audience’s response at this concert, which featured Hans von Bülow conducting Liszt’s symphonic poem “Die Ideale,” became a matter of controversy. This is Thayer’s account:
At length the piece closed, and an occurrence followed, which I fear will have painful consequences for Bülow. It was this. A few individuals in the hall (scattered here and there) applauded. This called out at once an almost universal and loud hiss! Bülow, who had nearly reached the back of the stage, turned and hurried forward and addressed the audience. Some understood him to say words to this effect: “Such a proceeding is not the style here, I beg you to omit it” (es unterlassen.) If these were his words, one feels inclined to judge him kindly, as the piece was by his father-in-law, and as it was well known beforehand what sort of music Liszt writes.
But I understood him, as did many others to say words to this effect: “Hissing is not the style here, I ask the hissers to leave the hall,” (den Saal zu verlassen.) I have never seen during the four winters of my acquaintance in the musical circles of Berlin, an excitement equal to the one which these words have called up. At the moment people seemed struck dumb, and, in fact, the rest of the concert passed off quiet as concerts usually do here. But since that evening folks are gradually finding out that they have been insulted, and seem ready to pour out vials of wrath upon the man’s head.2A. W. Thayer, “Musical Correspondence,” Dwight’s Journal of Music 14 (1859): 381. (There was more discussion in the following issue, pp. 388-89.)
These are just a couple of instances that show how nineteenth-century audiences had various ways of making their preferences known, and in the latter case, were outraged at the idea that this was not allowed. Today we either just clap a little or a lot. How we arrived at the situation today is a complex topic; better documentation of past practices will make any theories and judgments about concert life today more interesting and convincing.