(Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 11:58 AM Eastern on 17 Feb. See below.)
Composer and weblogger Marcus Maroney of Sounds Like New weighs in thoughtfully on the question of audience etiquette at the classical music concert (see this prior post of mine for more detail on audience etiquette). Mr. Maroney's key thought:
If we begin to allow and then to expect clapping between movements of certain works, won't the behavior become [as] equally "regulated" [as today's "regulated" silence between movements]?
Yes indeed. Just so.
Champions of the idea of a return to the concert etiquette of the 18th and 19th centuries where the "regulated" audience practice was, for instance, to show approval by clapping between movements, are forever citing examples of famous composers of the time seemingly showing their pleasure in, even approval of, the practice, the point of adducing the examples being to convince us that if the practice was approved by composers such as those, then we should have no objection to, ought to even encourage, such practice today.
But the examples adduced by these champions are totally specious, and citing them, the worst sort of sophistry. That, for instance, Brahms thought a new piano concerto of his a failure because instead of applause there was only silence after each of the first two movements, or that Mozart purposely wrote into a movement of a symphony certain passages calculated to provoke an audience to applause, and reveled in the success of that device, shows only that both composers were keenly aware of, and sensitive to, the prevailing concert etiquette of their respective times, and what was expected and when from an audience as a sign of its pleasure. The examples in no way demonstrate those composers' in-principle pleasure in, and approval of, that etiquette. It was simply a fact of musical life in those times, the consequence of largely musically ignorant and uncouth audiences, both aristocratic and bourgeois, and as working composers who depended on those audiences for their daily bread and cheese, Mozart and Brahms had little choice but to accept and play by the rules of that etiquette.
Classical music critics writing today who champion such changes in our present-day classical music concert etiquette for the express purpose of making the classical music concert more inviting to, and comfortable for, the masses (one of those critics goes so far as to mindlessly suggest that we turn the promotion of classical music, and the classical music concert itself, into the rough equivalent of a circus act to make it more appealing to the masses) are simply as wrongheaded about the matter as they could possibly be, notwithstanding how well-intentioned their championing, and seem oblivious of the wholesale damage that would obtain were their proposals put into actual practice.
One classical music critic who champions such make-it-inviting-for-the-masses alterations to what he considers, generally, the ossified and elitist classical music promotion and concert practices of the present-day declares in hopeful metaphor, "When the age of the dinosaurs ends, the age of the mammals begins."
I suggest that a better metaphor for what would obtain were the practices this critic and his like-minded colleagues champion put into actual practice would be what obtained on the island of Guam when the alien common brown tree snake was by error introduced into the environment, whereupon their numbers rapidly multiplied. In fairly short order, all native bird species on the island disappeared, their song silenced forever. Today, only the squawking of chickens and the hum and clatter of modern-day commerce prevail there.
Something to keep in mind, and think about.
Update (11:58 AM Eastern on 17 Feb): Alex Ross of The Rest Is Noise (who though he is, as he suspects, "in there somewhere" in my above post, is most decidedly not in there as the critic who advocates turning classical music promotion and the classical music concert "into the rough equivalent of a circus act"), in a listing of links to several weblog posts on this matter, remarks:
A truly engaged audience would applaud warmly when it's called for, remain silent when applause is inappropriate, and boo when the performance falls obviously short.
I must say I agree with that sentiment, and would even welcome such a practice in the concert hall. Problem is, it works properly only when an audience is made up entirely of the musically informed and knowledgeable; i.e., genuine connoisseurs. It most certainly does not work cannot work with a "mixed" audience where some or many are largely ignorant of classical music, or whose exposure to classical music has been of the superficial, cultural/social obligation sort; ergo, the tacit "rules of conduct" for the classical music concert audience. It's simply the most sensible way to go about the thing today, and speaks to the reality of present-day classical music concert audiences.