Back in my very early days, when Brisbane had the reputation of being Australia’s biggest country town, I enjoyed attending the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s Youth Concert Series. These were especially designed to introduce us into the music and etiquette of classical music. Now I stress the word etiquette because there were certain standards of behaviour to which a live audience was expected to adhere: no talking during the performance, no coughing, no shuffling of restless feet, no leaving before the end. But the biggest demand of etiquette was: do not applaud until the music has actually finished.
For example, many symphonies are divided up into four movements with a pause of several seconds between each section. With rare exceptions, the four movements of a symphony conform to a standardized pattern. The first movement is brisk and lively; the second is slower and more lyrical; the third is an energetic minuet (dance) or a boisterous scherzo (“joke”); and the fourth is a rollicking finale. The conductor may even explain this pattern to his youthful audience, just prior to the performance. But what he does not explain is the pause between each section, during which break the audience may cough, shuffle, or look at their programmes, but, under no circumstances, clap.
Of course, being youthful and inexperienced, the audience would sometimes forget to be restrained and break out into spontaneous applause, myself included. The conductor would ignore us with his back turned and simply wait until the clapping had ceased before commencing the next section of the music.
To me though, the end of a section would often be the most dramatic, especially for the conductor – would we, or wouldn’t we? Of course, it wouldn’t have worried Beethoven in later life when he was conducting his own works: he was stone deaf and would have gone on conducting whether the audience was listening or not.