Most musicians appreciate applause at any time during a performance. Until the late 19th century and even into the 20th century, it was customary for audiences to applaud at the end of every section of a given piece, and some movements were even given an immediate encore if the applause was great enough. Modern audiences, however, tend to wait until the end of an entire work to clap. Why? Holding applause between movements is considered to be respectful to the performers’ concentration and mindful of musical continuity.
A good rule of thumb is to count the number of movements for an entire work—usually indicated by different tempo (speed) markings—and then applaud after the final movement. Some composers are tricky, however, and do not insert a pause between movements. Beethoven, for example, goes from the third to the final movement of his 5th Symphony without any pause. Perhaps he wanted to be sure there would be no applause at that moment.
The conductor should let you know, and usually does, when a piece is over. He or she will put his or her arms down and turn to face the audience. The conductor will also shake the hands of the concertmaster and the soloist if there is one. If you’re still in doubt, you can always wait until someone else begins to clap and then join in!
Posted in: concert etiquette