Against Applause

In their 1918 mission statement, The Society for Private Musical Performances, located in Vienna, declared the following: “The performances must be withdrawn from the corrupting influence of publicity; that is, they must not be inspired by a spirit of competition, and must be independent of applause and expressions of disapproval”.

Glenn Gould wrote that the institutions that encourage applauding might as well be “comfortably upholstered extension[s] of the Roman Colosseum”. The article’s title? “Let’s Ban Applause”.

To eliminate applause sounds farcical. The roots of this push, however, are moral.

Theodor Adorno proposed the idea of developing a relationship with music as being uniquely personal, that it, as Matthew Guerrieri explains, “is open-ended and individual, and thus far too inefficient for mass media, which relies on the mere illusion of an individual relationship. Recognition, though, is instant gratification”.

And what better signal of gratification than applause? In Adorno’s understanding, applause adopts this kind of “mob rules” mind set. It forces individuals to react to music the same way, regardless of whether one enjoyed, disliked, or didn’t understand the music. Thus applause becomes this suffocation of the individual, not so much promoting a personal relationship with music but a one size fits all enjoyment.

It’s no wonder that publicity, applause or not, was seen as destructive to understanding the new music coming out in the early 20th century. It’s no wonder that Gould compared applause in concerts to the jeers in stadiums.

Banning applause is not going to fix the issue. Even Gould and Schönberg knew that. Yet trying to understand the nature of applause, what it projects onto the music and the listener and performer, is what these two men did and what we all must do.

We might just reach the same conclusions.


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