I should have known… Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony is on the program this week and at some point it was going to come up: this matter of clapping after the third movement.
In many ways the applause question is a big yawn. When Alex Ross’s recent lecture for the Royal Philharmonic Society turned out to be largely focused on the traditions and perils of concert applause, it occurred to me that the ABC orchestras were publishing similarly thought-provoking articles on applause back in 1994. And as one of the SSO’s fans reminded me this evening, Peter Goldsworthy’s novel Maestro (1989) offers its own brief commentary on concert-hall convention. [When earnest young concertgoer Paul shakes his head rudely at those clapping between movements, old concertgoer Herr Keller – musician and music teacher – makes a point of clapping himself.]
So what to do about the Pathétique? It’s a trap.
Everything about the third movement prompts the sensitive, uninhibited listener to applaud at the end of it. At the premiere they did. (After all the movements actually.) And you have to assume Tchaikovsky was expecting this. So is he playing up to expectation by writing something which you simply can’t resist applauding? It’s possible. The slow finale then emerges not just from the brittle triumph of the third movement but from under the echo of tumultuous applause. There’s real drama and tension in that, and Tchaikovsky would have known it.
On the other hand, if generations of modern listeners – trained by recordings to expect neatly sliced silences between movements – do the counter-intuitive thing and hold their applause after the third movement, so be it. This has its own tension and drama: the unnatural, unnerving hush following that euphoric coda, an almost palpable “sitting-on-hands”, and then the sighing opening of the finale.
For my part, I can enjoy the dramatic effect of either, which is just as well, since there’s no predicting – and certainly no controlling – what an audience will do.
In the Pathétique there are really only two potential mishaps which have the power to spoil the drama, and neither rests in the hands of the audience: the conductor who ploughs on into the fourth movement under enthusiastic applause, and the conductor who mocks the applauding audience.
My solution as a program editor? It seems patronising to tell people how or when to respond to music. But it’s pointed out in two separate spots that the third movement sounds like it could be the end of the symphony but isn’t. What readers choose to do with that information is up to them.