Friday, January 27, 2012

Classical Music Riots from Richard Wagner to Steve Reich

By Stefan Aune

Awhile back I wrote a blog about the riot that broke out at the premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. The audience became so violent that the police shut down the performance, resulting in plenty of publicity for Stravinksy's tonally and artistically controversial ballet. You may be surprised to learn that The Rite of Spring premiere isn't the only instance of classical music rioting. In fact, there have been several instances throughout history where the emotions of the audience were moved in the direction of yelling, fighting, or disruption. Here are a few of the most famous incidents:

In 1861 composer Richard Wagner made the controversial decision to place a ballet, not in the second act of his work Tannhauser, but in the first act. This mortally offended the high society audience, made up of members of the prestigious Jockey Club. In a move that today's concert-goers would probably find excessive, the offended audience organized a coordinated disruption of the Paris performance, complete with catcalls and trills on silver whistles. The incident caused a scandal, and we should be thankful that this sort of rigidity no longer governs the composition and performance of classical music. Or maybe you just need to give the people what they want.

Richard Wagner - Ballet Rebel
Wagner's ballet faux pas would not be the only instance where the performance of his music would result in controversy. Wagner was a favorite of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, and his pieces played a prominent role in the Nazi cultural propaganda machine. Wagner's personal writings also feature several instances of antisemitism, and as a result there was for many years an informal ban on the performance of Wagner in Israel. In 1981 the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra was scheduled to play a piece from Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde, but conductor Zubin Mehta called off the performance when the audience loudly interrupted and a Holocaust survivor ascended to the stage, removed their shirt, and showed scars that were inflicted while in a concentration camp.

The controversy over Wagner's music would erupt again in 2001, when conductor Daniel Barenboim lead the orchestra at the annual Israel Festival in a Wagner encore. Before the encore Barenboim personally addressed the audience, warning them that he was about to conduct a piece by Wagner and inviting anyone who didn't want to hear the piece from Tristan and Isolde to leave. A 30 minute debate ensued, during which most audience members were supportive, while others loudly protested and left the theater. The encore received a standing ovation, but it was harshly criticized, with the director of the Nazi hunting Simon Wiesenthal center calling it "cultural rape" and the mayor of Jerusalem warning that the city would have to reconsider its future relationship with Barenboim.

Daniel Barenboim
The Wagner encore isn't Barenboim's only participation in classical music unrest. In 2010 Barenboim was at the center of the controversy over Italy's slashing of the fine arts budget. Barenboim, who is the principal guest conductor of the La Scala opera house in Milan, turned to the Italian prime minister at the start of a performance and warned against the erosion of support for the arts. Barenboim also read aloud from sections of the Italian constitution that promise support for "historic and artistic heritage." The speech resulted in applause from the audience, while outside La Scala protests turned ugly and riot gear-clad police charged protesters, resulting in injuries to participants and to several police officers. 

The Rite of Spring premiere that caused a riot in Paris featured Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, and these dancers would go on to reprise their roles in a classical music riot during a performance of the ballet Parade, a collaborative work written by Eric Satie and Pablo Picasso, with a one act scenario written by Jean Cocteau. The score featured several unusual instruments, including a typewriter and a foghorn, which caused audience members to become upset, yelling and disrupting the performance. It is speculated that Cocteau introduced the bizarre instrumentation in order to create a similar scene to the premiere of The Rite of Spring, which garnered Stravinsky a great deal of publicity.

A French critic who wrote an unfavorable review of the performance received a postcard from Satie that said "Sir and Dear Friend, You are not only an arse, but an arse without music." The critic sued Satie, and Cocteau reportedly yelled "arse" repeatedly during the courtroom proceedings, prompting the police to beat him. Satie would receive a sentence of 8 days in prison. All in all, Parade resulted in an inordinate amount of controversy and bad blood for a simple ballet.

Flier for Parade

In 1930's Germany, amidst the rise of the Nazi party, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht collaborated on an opera titled The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany, a critique of Berlin's increasingly intense political climate. The premiere of the work in Leipzig was disrupted by groups of Nazi agitators who had organized to protest the opera. They demonstrated outside of the opera house before the performance and moved their protest inside once the opera started.

Performer Lotte Lenya would later recall that "I had been told that the square around the opera house was filled with Nazi Brown Shirts, carrying placards protesting the 'Mahagonny' performance. ... The performance [was] well under way, before I was startled out of my absorption by the electric tension around us, something strange and ugly. As the opera swept toward its close, the demonstrations started, whistles and boos; by the time the last scene was reached, fist fights had broken out in the aisles, the theatre was a screaming mass of people; soon the riot had spread to the stage, panicky spectators were trying to claw their way out, and only the arrival of a large police force, finally, cleared the theatre." It wouldn't be long before the Nazis moved from being political agitators to constituting the police forces that they had previously clashed with. We can add the disruption of Weill's and Brecht's opera to the lengthy list of their crimes.

Minimalism has remained a controversial subset of classical music. People either love it or they hate it, but regardless of the disgust or confusion minimalist composition sometimes engenders, the influence of artists such as La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Phill Niblock, and Steve Reich cannot be denied. At a 1973 Carnegie Hall performance that included works by Mozart and Liszt, Steve Reich's Four Organs was performed. The piece, which is made up of repetitive interactions between four organs, accompanied by the steady shaking of maracas, enraged some audience members. One elderly woman took off her shoe and banged it on the front of the stage, demanding a halt to the music.

Steve Reich
Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas would later recall that the audience made "at least three serious attempts to halt the piece." "They made so much noise that I had to yell the numbers - I had to look over at Steve and mouth very loudly '17, 18, 19' or whatever count we were on. We kept going, even though people were having fist-fights in the audience." I sincerely wish I could have been at this performance - to my mind, the effect of a minimal and emotionally intense piece like Four Organs would be heightened by the angry reactions of individuals unable to appreciate it. Sometimes there needs to be music that people find upsetting, because the alternative is complacency and stagnation.

Steve Reich's Four Organs

As far as I am aware there hasn't been a fist fight at a classical music performance recently, but the recent cell phone incident during a performance of the New York Philharmonic shows that classical music audiences remain unafraid to loudly voice their opinions, sometimes over the music, if something upsets them. Next time you are going to accuse the symphony of being boring, think again. 

*Thanks to the WQXR blog for inspiration and facts in the writing of this blog*

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