LETTER : Cause for applause

From Mr Michael Johnson

Sir: I would like to add a few thoughts on applause in general agreement with Michael Varcoe-Cocks (letter, 7 August).

Spontaneous reaction by a whole audience is a compliment to the composer or writer and to the performers and habits vary according to place and time. Eighteenth-century audiences were expected to applaud after every aria in an opera and to talk during the recitatives, and works were constructed to allow for that. When Chopin played his own piano concertos, he split them between the two halves of concerts so clearly he expected applause for individual movements. Felix Weingartner was told by an old lady who had sung in the first performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that the audience had applauded spontaneously at the timpani strokes in the Scherzo. And so on. I recently watched a video of a Bolshoi Ballet performance in which the Moscow audience applauded during the dance far more than we would expect at Covent Garden.

A word on the habits of kabuki audiences as mentioned by Mr Varcoe-Cocks. The phenomenon is more complex and subtle than he suggests. Kabuki is a highly formalised art in which every last gesture or declamation is carried out according to strict rules and standards. When a performer, particularly a recognised star, executes a movement very finely, it is acceptable for connoisseurs in the audience to shout out the performer's name, with a word of appreciation. This is not just individual response to the performance but a highly cultivated form of audience participation. The nearest parallel here might be if, when a ballerina struck a particularly exquisite balance, the knowledgeable in the audience shouted "Darcey!" but I'm not inclined to risk it.

Yours faithfully,

Michael Johnson

London, N6

7 August