An old phrase has been kicking around in Presbyterian and Methodist circles for more years than I can vouch for. In those churches, in my youth, I used to hear this line: "There's no point in preaching to those who are already saved." However, it always happened that just as I was thinking, "Hey, great! No sermon today?!" the preacher would launch into one of his longer efforts, completely disregarding the fact that those sitting in front of him were, at least in the churches I attended, obviously saved.
As a matter of fact, that great revival preacher, Billy Sunday, never made the tactical error of letting his devoted listeners forget that they were sinners. Never mind that they were there in his Winona Lake, Ind., tabernacle listening to him, and bursting out into "Hallelujah!" and "Praise the Lord!" and "Amen, brother!" which were, in those days, the equivalent of "Right on!" No, sir. Billy Sunday didn't hold with any of that "preaching to those who are already saved" business. And when he stopped for breath, Homer Rodeheaver was right there to lead us all in "I once was lost, but now am found." But that was only if and when we were already trooping down the sawdust trail for one more fast repentance.
So while I presume that anyone reading this knows enough not to applaud at the wrong moment, I am still going to go right ahead and launch yet another campaign to bring more unbelivevers into the fold. The whole subject came up again two weeks ago when Schubert's song cycle about the miller's pretty daughter was sung in town two nights in a row for two different audiences who behaved in two very different ways when it came to applauding.
On Sunday, Nov. 12 when Grayson Hirst sang "Die schoene Muellerin" at the National Gallery, the program carried the line "At the request of the artists, the audience is requested to refrain from applause between the individual songs." That line was printed in italics at the top of the program. The audience, whether or not it had been saved when it walked into the hall, behaved like angels. Not a clap, not a peep, not a pair of hands went "bam!" the instant Hirst finished the final syllable of each song.
The next night in the Kennedy Center, Bernard Kruysen sang the same cycle. That evening's program also carried a line that read, "The audience is requested to hold applause until the intervals." But the line was buried in small type at the bottom of the page. And so, after almost every single one of the 20 songs of the cycle, more than a few in the audience, in spite of shushing from others, insisted on clapping, even though they had just banged their hands together two minutes earlier.
Now those people who clapped are probably not reading this. And of course those of you who are know better than to do a dumb thing like that. But taking Billy Sunday's example, let's just review some of the ground rules once more. (By the way, there was nothing to stop either Kruysen or pianist Andre Watts from asking the audience very politely not to applaud between those songs, something which they had Patrick Hayes of the Washington Performing Arts Society do the following Monday night when they presented another cycle.)
(1) Never, never, never applaud during the music. Why would anyone? Isn't the music the thing you are there to hear? The thing for which you have plunked out all that money? Then why drown it out with the work of your hands? Won't they wait until it has stopped? Musicians will love you much more if you deafen them after they have finished.
One of the most interesting and puzzling places this rule is most frequently violated is at the opera. First, whenever the curtain goes up. Mind you, there is not a soul in sight on the stage, and the orchestra is playing beautiful music by Verdi or Wagner or Bizet or Mozart or whoever your favorite composer might be. But somebody thinks that if he does not start to clap right then, he will be thought illiterate. (He should know what some people think!) What is he applauding? The scenery? The designer is probably thousands of miles away, having done the sets years before. Yet the applause drowns out the music and ruins the very thing the composer intended as a special moment, that music heard as the curtain rises. Cut it out !
(2) Never, never, never applaud the instant the singer finishes either a) a loud high note or b) the last note of an aria . . . unless by chance the music stops at the same time. Tip: You will never commit an unforgiveable gaff by waiting to applaud. No one will ever think, "What a dumb jerk!" if you do not applaud until everyone else does.
(3) At song recitals such as those Schubert performances, remeber that most singers like it better if you wait until the end of a group of songs by the same composer before you clap. (This does not apply to, say, a group of miscellaneous arias on an opera star's recital.) Singers may actually hate you if you leap in and shatter a mood they have worked hard to create by banging your hands loudly during any song cycle. They will love you madly if you sit there breathless, in keeply moved silence until they, by subtle body English or facial gestures, make it quite clear that they have ended one entire segment of the program.
Now for a little controversy: I don't care on bit if you want to clap after some movements of some symphonies and concertos. You will, however, run the very real risk of being riddiculed if you do so before the whole thing is over. That's chance you will have to take. Musically and psychologically it would seem inappropriate to applaud after a slow, quiet ending to a movement in mid-symphony. But Tchaikovsky certainly gets us a lot more fired up in that martial third movement of the Pathetique Symphony than he does in the magnificent but tragic finale, after which the gloom is so thick you often do not feel like clapping at all.
Some conductors will frown and carry on if you applaud between movements; some agree with me that it is perfectly all right, depending on the specific work. Better watch your step, and remember, don't be the first one on your block to start the applause.
Finally, when a concert is over, you are free to applaud or not to applaud as long and as loudly, or as little, as you like. Or don't like.No one has the slightest obligation to stick around for one, two, three or four encores. On the other hand, anyone who wants to stay and clap as long as an artist is willing to keep on performing is welcome to. But don't give those who have had enough and are ready to leave at the end of the printed program a hard time! By the way, as if you did not know it, encores at chamber music and symphony concerts are so rare as to be non-existent, so save your strength. And remember: While the music is playing, any music, any time, SHUT UP!