Alex Ross has an interesting post written about this subject here. There’s kind of a funny quote:
It’s not surprising that conductors were intent on stamping out spontaneous clapping. To refrain from applause heightens focus on the personality of the conductor. Silence is the measure of the unbreakable spell that Maestro is supposedly casting on us. A big ovation at the end salutes his mastery of the architecture of the work, or whatever.
(“Or whatever” is in his own words, not mine.)
It seems like the “no applause during concerts” thing is a modern invention, established by orchestral conductors which eventually spread into mainstream practice. This allowed for composers to experiment with “quieter” gestures that would otherwise get drowned out due to the audience’s background noise. It’d be hard to imagine something like Cage’s 4’33″ being possible without this type of tradition to keep the audience in-line.
Meanwhile, jazz and other types of popular musics took advantage of amplification in order to cut through the audience’s chatter. The technology was especially good for vocalists and singers, because they were able to amplify subtle nuances in their voice without having to rely on the bel canto style in order to project. Miles Davis was able to bring out the “quieter” side of the trumpet without necessarily losing any volume.
Should the audience be quieter or should the musicians get louder (or visa versa)? Much like you would find at a bar or cafe nowadays there’s plenty of accounts that classical music in the past were often talked over, with audiences giving applause whenever they heard something they liked. Are classical musicians really willing to give up this tradition of demanding the audience of their focused attention? I think some people get in a hizzy about “inappropriate” clapping because in it they can see their medium descending into the anarchy of the popular musics, or whatever.
The one nice thing about CalArts was that there was a lot less of this type of thing going on. Sure, the “rules” are still there to some extent, but when you have people drinking beers during composer’s concerts, you can tell that the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed. If you’re at a concert, why not enjoy yourself?