Sound and Scandal

When music mattered enough to start a fight

A caricature from the April 6, 1913 edition of the Vienna <em>Zeit</em> (Wikimedia Commons)
A caricature from the April 6, 1913 edition of the Vienna Zeit (Wikimedia Commons)


These days, journalists are the enemies of the people. There was a time, however, when that dubious honor belonged to artists, namely classical musicians.

Think of Dmitri Shostakovich, declared an enemy of the Soviet people in 1936, following the official denunciation of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Not long after Stalin attended a performance of the work, an editorial in Pravda appeared, condemning Shostakovich’s complex score as a threat to art, morality, and the future of society itself. As a consequence, the composer suffered near-constant paranoia, fearing the dreaded door knock in the dead of night—a sure sign that one was about to disappear. During the Nazi era, political interference in the musical arts was no less severe. Naturally, Jewish musicians were banned, removed from their jobs, sent to the camps, yet gentile composers whose music was deemed unpalatably astringent were also branded as degenerates.

It might be difficult today to imagine a time when music posed a threat to dictators and demagogues, when artists were hounded, harassed, condemned, or made to disappear, all in the name of ideology. It might be even more difficult to imagine a time when classical music mattered so much to ordinary people as well as governments, when a new work could provoke hatred, fear, even violence among the masses.

The most famous example was the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring on May 29, 1913. The angry disturbances at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées had much to do with the perceived crudeness of Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography, but the wild dissonances and rhythms of Stravinsky’s music—so intoxicating and, well, conventional today—would have surely jarred the uninitiated of an earlier age. Stravinsky himself heard the first bout of laughter just after the mysterious bassoon line that begins the work. Perhaps we should not call what happened that day a riot, since the details remain hazy and reports conflict—did the police arrive, did they not? Yet two months earlier, in Vienna, a full-scale riot did erupt at another performance of contemporary music, with Arnold Schoenberg conducting a program of recent orchestral and vocal works. It was a seminal moment, a performance so significant (or, shall I say, ignoniminous) that it was even given a name after the fact: Skandalkonzert.

In the early 20th century, Schoenberg was pushing the bounds of traditional triadic harmony, emancipating music from tonality and the keynote, and he was training a generation of younger composers, Alban Berg and Anton Webern among them, to follow his lead. Not surprisingly, performances of this music often rankled Vienna’s conservative concertgoing public, and those who filled the Great Hall of the Musikverein on March 31, 1913—both antagonists of the Schoenberg school, such as the operetta composer Oscar Straus, and a legion of supporters—must have sensed the possibility of trouble. Sure enough, the first disruption occurred soon after Schoenberg began conducting Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra. Webern was only in his 20s at the time, yet these six pieces—distilled, intense, lyrical, dissonant—would be one of his greatest achievements, one of several works he composed in memory of his mother, who had died several years before. Each of the six is a musical postcard of sorts: the first recalls the day a young Webern rode the train to his family’s country estate in Carinthia and felt a presentiment of his mother’s death; the second expresses the terror of realizing that the premonition was true; the third evokes the discovery of a sprig of Erica blossoms, which he later placed on his mother’s grave; the fourth depicts the funeral procession itself; the fifth and sixth pieces are a kind of coda, in which we hear the artist’s inward retreat, his deep sense of melancholy. The audience was unaware of this hidden program, but would it have even mattered to those whose patience was tested by anything other than old-fashioned tonal music? The Six Pieces resulted in much shouting and laughter, which Schoenberg’s adherents would not tolerate, and they now tried to drown out the loud, conservative voices with their own vigorous applause.

Alexander Zemlinsky’s Four Orchestral Songs, based on poems by Maurice Maeterlinck, followed—opulent and tonal pieces that provided a temporary balm. Yet perhaps this more conventional fare only threw into greater relief the difficulties of the work that came next: Schoenberg’s own Chamber Symphony No. 1. Those who may have hoped for the lush, late-Romantic sounds of Gurrelieder or Verklärte Nacht were in for a shock. Schoenberg would later say that he had discovered his “own personal style of composing” in writing this innovative piece, which served as a bridge between his tonal and atonal periods. Yet a large segment of the crowd was having none of it. The sound of Schoenberg’s hyper-expressionist lines caused a good deal of hissing and whistling, and afterward, the jangling of keys provoked a round of furious clapping from defenders of the work. In one of the balconies, the first fistfight of the evening broke out, accompanied by so much shouting that the next work on the program, two of Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, could not be heard until some modicum of calm was restored.

If Webern’s reaction to the turmoil was one of defiance and anger, the younger Berg felt defeated, and indeed, he suffered a profound crisis of confidence as a result of what happened. It wasn’t just Berg’s dissonant music that provoked the bursts of laughter and general agitation. The texts of Peter Altenberg’s poems had been printed in the program, and the overtly sexual nature of the lyrics—Have you seen the forest after the thunderstorms? / Everything sparkles, flashes, and is lovelier than before. / See, woman, you also need a thunderstorm!—appeared to scandalize even the least repressed of Berg’s detractors. Schoenberg stopped the performance to scold the audience, and from the loge, Webern shouted out his disdain. The two factions in the crowd now battled with gusto, climbing over rows to get at each other. Faces were slapped, ears boxed, challenges to duel lustily issued. There were calls for Altenberg to be locked up in the Steinhof mental asylum—from people seemingly unaware that the poet was already institutionalized there.

Erhard Buschbeck, the president of the association that had organized the concert, took to the stage, pleading with the crowd to restrain itself, to respect the memory of the late Gustav Mahler, and to sit still for the composer’s Kindertotenlieder. Nothing doing—the brawl continued. The musicians, some bemused, others frightened, remained on stage until they, too, were attacked, at which time Schoenberg decided it best to haul them all off. Mahler’s song cycle would not be heard that day. And so, the police were summoned to the hallowed, elegant Musikverein, and half an hour would pass before peace could be established and the hall finally cleared. At some point during the evening, Oscar Straus had been punched in the face; he later said that the crack to his jaw had been the most harmonious thing he’d heard all evening.

Not that I thirst for violence in any way, but I have to wonder: What piece of classical music today could incite a riot? What does it say about the waning influence of this particular art form that even the most avant-garde works of our time would barely raise the blood pressure of the public? (Not that controversies don’t arise: John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer causes an uproar whenever it is staged, but that has everything to do with the subject—the hijacking of the Achille Lauro by members of the Palestinian Liberation Front and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer—and nothing to do with the music itself.) Once, classical music had real influence in western societies. Today, it is a niche art, a luxury—for many, an afterthought. If the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts is indeed reduced to zero, numerous ensembles, festivals, educational programs, and contemporary music ventures would suffer. Yet, other than those of us for whom classical music is as essential as water and air, will anyone really care—care enough, that is, to riot?

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Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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