Jay Nordlinger, always an insightful writer on music (and a brilliant writer on pretty much anything he writes about), has two posts on applause. I mean applause _during_ rather than after a concert. One is on “propriety by consent”: a politician’s sense of propriety, in this case Richard Nixon. The other tries to answer the question why applauding a beautiful aria during an opera is considered proper, whereas applauding an astonishing movement of a sonata performance is not.

These days, opera and chamber music aficionados tend to raise their eyebrows when some people who never attended a concert, because of age or because they thought this kind of music didn’t matter to them, upon discovering the immense beauty of what they came to listen explode in a burst of enthusiasm, clapping after a movement that they consider particularly inspired or a performance that sounded magical. They typically get shushed. To be fair, sometimes one has the impression they started clapping because they thought the performance was over: because they could not distinguish between the end of a movement and the end of the whole thing. But sometimes newcomers are bringing to the concert hall something which is needed there, particularly if this kind of music ought to survive: enthusiasm.

Nordinger takes a friendlier view of the occasional applause and an even friendlier one of the artists (such as Joshua Bell) who acknowledge the value judgment that clapping conveys and nod to the public or signal they liked their signalling somehow.

But how do you explain the difference in approach, between opera and chamber music? Why would the (self-conscious) refined listener, the experienced concert goer, clap after an aria but never after an exciting moment in a string quartet?

Nordlinger asked musicologist Robert Marshall, who so answered:

My guess is that these customs got started in the nineteenth century and have a lot to do with audience behavior in opera houses (mainly Italy) versus concert halls (mainly the German-speaking world). Opera was still mainly entertainment, especially in Italy, but public concerts in halls built for that purpose became events in something like secular temples to art. People were supposed to show reverence for the great artists—performers and, especially, the almost divine composers. (The genius cult in art was taking on unprecedented importance in this period.)

But it definitely wasn’t always thus.

In the eighteenth century, even the aristocratic audiences at the opera didn’t really go to hear the music. They went to hear their favourite singers sing arias. Probably no one at all paid attention to the plot or listened to the recitatives, or even the arias of the other singers. Instead, they chatted, played cards, ate dinner in their boxes, and stopped only when the favourite began to sing an aria. Don’t know for sure, but I would guess that the audience would then often applaud wildly and shout and even demand an immediate encore of the aria.

It looks like that applause is considered more proper when the show is considered to be by and large about the performer (as in the case of opera) and not so much when it is considered to be about the composer (like in symphony and chamber music). Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to imply that Wagner is less relevant than the baritone who plays Hans Sachs for the success of Meistersinger. But opera was and still is so much about those who sing, to the point that some opera singers (very few, indeed) are famous in a way not unlike some pop-singers: Pavarotti and Domingo being outliers. The beauty of the human voice trumps the beauty of the human mind, in the performance. While you do have plenty of splendid musicians that are out of this world, when they’re playing a Ravel piano concerto or Brahms’ sonatas for clarinet and piano, people do not want the flux of music to be interrupted, out of respect for Ravel and Brahms.

This was embedded in a different kind of setting, respectively for opera and music concerts. Those settings – those institutions – passed particular customs and habits to contemporary concert goers, and they got somehow codified with time. Chamber and opera are, for aficionados, a very big part of their identity: if people are serious about music, they tend to consider themselves as listeners and concertgoers. This has likely made them all the more intolerant with newcomers, who aren’t aware of the rules of the house. The antipathy for applause may be simply signalling that chamber music connoisseurs are a smaller and smaller community, that cope with its reduced size by emphasizing its strict adherence to rules of propriety.