When Music Caused Riots

As with Schoenberg in Vienna, the scandalous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913 outraged the audience

On The Town | Benjamin Kubaczek, Cynthia Peck | May 2013

At the premiere of The Rite of Spring, people shouted at the performers, as chaos broke out | Cartoon: Die Zeit, 1913

"If that’s a bassoon, I’m a baboon!" quipped composer Camille Saint-Saëns on hearing the opening bars of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. At least that’s the legend.

It was 29 May 1913, and although some doubt whether the French composer really was there that Paris evening, the ensuing "riot" at the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées was about to go down in classical music history.

While riots at classical concerts seem improbable today, in 1913 they happened with disturbing regularity. At the end of March that same year, the Musikverein in Vienna witnessed a riot at a concert of works by Arnold Schoenberg and his circle.

The performance was cut short by police breaking up fistfights in the aisles. And in the court case that followed, one "spectator" said that the most beautiful music all evening had been the sound of people slapping each other’s faces.

Anniversaries are regularly used, or misused, by concert programme designers. Alex Ross, music critic at the New Yorker, calls this phenomenon the "anniversary machine", a "painfully obvious symbol of classical music’s excessive fixation on the past." And when a scandal concert is repeated, one wonders what is really being celebrated.

A staid rerun of Schoenberg and Webern

Indeed, the re-performance of Schoenberg’s scandal concert by the Radio Symphony

Orchestra at the beginning of April this year was a typically staid Musikverein event. This time the audience was polite and listened through to the end. While the orchestra produced a particularly moving performance of Anton Webern’s Six Pieces for Large Orchestra, the mood was so dry, one had to ask why people had come at all. Has atonal music lost its bite? Or can we already hum along?

When Saint-Saëns heard the first measures of the Rite, he supposedly leaned over to his neighbour to ask what the instrument was.

The bassoon was playing in such a high register, its tone had become unrecognisable. While there are plenty of instruments able to play those notes without a problem, Stravinsky wanted them played by a bassoon.

Or perhaps more accurately, wailed by a bassoon. Already in the first measures, laughter rippled through the audience.

It was the première of Stravinsky’s third commissioned work for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with choreography by the star dancer of the day, Vaslav Nijinsky.

The piece’s introduction continued, with instruments entering one after the other, sounding like animals in the jungle roaring to each other, marking their territory. The organised chaos continued to grow in volume, and then suddenly stopped, with again just the bassoon floating out of the noise, playing that too-high opening melody.

The music with its ballet is the story of a human sacrifice to mark the return of spring, an ur-ritual of times longer ago than ancient. But much of the music hailed back to Stravinsky’s homeland Russia, although he later played that down.

The brittle opening bassoon passage is a Lithuanian folk melody, the wild "unorganized" stamping rhythms reminiscent of Russian folk dances. But perhaps the main problem at the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées was not the music – new and dissonant though it was. Nijinsky’s choreography was even more shocking for the audience.

Ballet at that time was about beauty, grace and frothiness. But Nijinsky’s choreography did just the opposite. The energy of the dancers went down into the earth; it did not make them lighter than air.

With hats and programmes flying

Seeing the dancers tromping on flat feet in ridiculous long robes, the unrest in the audience began. People started shouting at the performers, and proponents of the avant-garde shouted back. Soon hats and programmes were flying onto the stage, and people were laughing and yelling. "Get them a dentist," they bellowed, when the sad-faced dancers held their hands to their cheeks.

Diaghilev tried to calm the audience down by turning the lights on and off; Nijinsky leaned out onto the stage and shouted out the numbers of the beats to the dancers, who couldn’t hear the orchestra over the din in the audience. Stravinsky, who had already left the auditorium soon after the opening, stood in the wings.

But despite the uproar opening night, the theatre put on five more performances in the next fortnight, and the creators were quite satisfied. It is a success story that has never ended.

This month, on 29 May, the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées is celebrating the Rite’s birthday with a centenary performance: Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg and the Mariinsky Ballet dancing the original Nijinsky choreography as reconstructed by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer. Tickets have been sold out since last year.

But it is still possible to be part of this month’s celebrations: On 18 and 19 May the same Russian group is performing the Rite in Salzburg. Here in Vienna you can hear it twice: On 16 May at the Musikverein, with the Munich Philharmonic and Lorin Maazel conducting, and again on 27 May at the Konzerthaus, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and London’s Philharmonic Orchestra.

Clearly these performances will not cause any riots, although rowdy reactions to new music haven’t stopped: When Steve Reich performed his piece Four Organs at Carnegie Hall in 1973, he was interrupted by a jumble of applause, laughter and shouts. A woman even went up to the stage, banged her head against the wall and yelled, "Please stop, please stop, I confess!"

Still, real emotional response to music is good. Despite the early notoriety of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, it has become a beloved part of the canon of 20th-century classical music. Its beats continue to reverberate a century later, its rhythmic drive is still propelling us forward.¸

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