I heard once that in the classical music world you get one good riot per century. I suppose it’s not all that surprising. Art is naturally progressive—forever moving towards the unknown and therefore the disturbing. Many audiences find themselves pigheadedly prescribed to the traditions with which they developed, to the point where deviations are met with wary unwelcome. Friction develops between traditionalists and innovators, and environments to alleviate it are few and far between. Thus, pressure builds until it can be suitably (and publicly) released. For example, take a gentleman on his way to a premiere at his favorite concert hall. He puts on his fine charcoal suit. He and his wife go to dinner beforehand and select a pricier wine. He arrives at the venue and takes his seat next to his friends, also veterans of the symphony’s many seasons. The lights dim and he settles in for the music. It begins, but something is off. These harmonies, the rhythms, the melodies, they’re all wrong. It just sounds bad. Where are the cadences? What happened to the march? Just a week ago, Beethoven’s 9th was played on this very same stage! This outrage, this meaningless noise, doesn’t deserve to share a stage with Beethoven! And it’s not just this piece. All these young “revolutionaries” are trying to upset a beautiful and noble tradition, one which can stand just fine on its own. It’s not hard to see how this could escalate if the entire audience feels this way, or (perhaps worse yet) if half the audience feels this way while the other half is enjoying innovation.
Earlier this month, a concert in San Francisco was disrupted when an elderly couple began shouting and sarcastically clapping during a “modern” work for viola in order to bring the performance to an end. The performer, JHNO (who claims to have been invited specifically to fulfill a “subversive” role, adding an experimental element to the evening), did in fact end his piece prematurely, smashing his viola and storming offstage. Elderly violist Bernard Zaslav, formerly of the Fine Arts Quartet, claimed retrospectively that a faulty hearing aid simply made the performance unbearably painful, however his shouts of “I’m a real violist and this isn’t music!” and “Bravo!” certainly don’t help his case.
While the event in San Francisco didn’t escalate into a full riot, the incident, together with the anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s birth yesterday, allows us a chance to reflect on musical riots of the past. The first such upset that I learned of occurred during a performance of Steve Reich’s Four Organs in 1973 under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. The piece is twenty-five minutes of a single chord, first punctuated and then drawn out. The 1973 concert received shouts and catcalls from the Carnegie Hall audience, and one woman famously beat the stage with her head (or her shoe, depending on which version you hear). Interestingly, the piece had been fairly well received at its premier three years prior, and though subsequent performances received a mix of applause and boos, nothing prepared Reich for the hostility he received at Carnegie Hall.
Looking back, perhaps no musical riot has escalated quite as much as what followed a performance of Daniel Auber’s La Muette de Portici. The work itself is notable for being the first French grand opera, as well as for introducing influential concepts such as mime to the world of opera. Similar to Reich’s work, the biggest fuss was not at the premiere performance (which occurred in early 1828), but rather in 1830 when the politically-charged opera was performed in Brussels. That performance sparked the riots that lead to Belgium’s revolution for independence.
Still, the most famous music riot is undoubtedly the one which followed the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in early 20th-century Paris. The combination of Stravinsky’s score—barbaric, primitive, complex, and decidedly genius—and Nijinsky’s sensual choreography sent the crowd into an uproar. The piece had hardly started when the audience was already shouting and whistling; this further devolved into arguments and fistfights in the aisles of the Theatre de Champs-Elysees. Saint-Saens himself is said to have stormed out of the theatre, infuriated at the misuse of the bassoon in the opening measures of the work. The Paris police arrived at intermission, but even they were unable to maintain order in the midst of rabid concert-goers. Stravinsky ran backstage to help Nijisnky lead the dancers, who were unable to hear the orchestra. Diaghilev, the famous arts patron who arranged for the commission of the work, flashed the lights of the theatre to try to bring order, but to no avail. Stravinsky was forced to flee the theatre.
Coincidentally, following the viola debacle in San Francisco, Mr. Zaslov was asked if he would also have shouted down The Rite of Spring to which he responded “But that was real music!” Many have speculated that audiences have become desensitized to composers and artists trying to shock them into awe or disgust. They feel that riots will soon become fossils—mere remnants of the past. Perhaps too, the rift between “traditionalists” and “modernists” in the classical music world has grown so wide that we are never forced to confront the uncertain. That the Beethoven crowd and the Berg crowd are never forced to share a stage. This effect, this sanitizing of the music worlds, is ultimately neither positive or negative, but simply a fact however sour or grim. As we look forward, the question of aesthetics seems to fade as the delineation between music and noise becomes confused into oblivion.
ViolaGate! by Brian M. Rosen via Music vs. Theatre
List of Classical Music Riots on Wikipedia