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Reflections on the Rite

Welcome to Reflections on the Rite!  If this is your first time visiting, please check out this post for a brief introduction.  



One more pre-Rite story and then, I promise, we’ll address the big night in May 1913.  As we discussed last week, Nijinsky and Debussy’s Jeux angered Parisian audience and critics, almost to the point of an uproar at the premiere.  But France wasn’t the only locus of riot-inspiring modernism.  Vienna, in fact, may take the cake.  Only it can lay claim to an actual German word for one particularly riotous evening: Skandalkonzert.

The radical moves made by a generation of composers often called the Second Viennese School — Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern — rocked Vienna’s musical establishment, which was not nearly as avant-garde, or at least titillated by modernism, as Paris’s was.  The composer Ernst Krenek summed it up well in his memoirs — Schoenberg to Vienna was a “local lunatic, a pure crank of no significance,” someone who invented new musical systems at the limits of human capabilities.  Of course, that was far from true, and this was something that the skeptical Viennese public discovered at the mega-hit premiere of Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder in February 1913, which was anything butSkandalkonzert.  Take a listen and you might understand why:

This is very beautiful music, and in the conventional way.  Not so for many of the works that the Viennese public had heard from Schoenberg in the preceding years. There were various kerfuffles at the Vienna premieres of Schoenberg’s op. 7 and 9 string quartets in 1907, and his op. 10 in 1908, even leading to a physical fight at one performance in Bösendorfer Hall.  There were, as always, various political machinations at work (a maxim worth remembering: no one ever riots from the music alone).  Viennese critics utilized Schoenberg’s public appearances to voice their hatred of Mahler, one of the younger composer’s greatest supporters (Mahler almost found himself in a fistfight at one concert).  Pupils of theorist Heinrich Schenker, one of Schoenberg’s antagonists, rose up in protest.  So it’s not quite like the broader public was objecting; it was, instead, the knowledgable few who voiced their opinions, quite loudly and obnoxiously.  However, it’s somewhat easy to understand that there might be heated reaction to a piece like this:

Anyway, back to Gurre-Lieder.  People had brought whistles and noisemakers, hoping for a gigantic public scandal — this was not just a chamber concert, but a full orchestra and chorus event on the stage of the Musikverein, home to the premieres of music by Brahms and Bruckner.  But Schoenberg’s oratorio won over even those prepared to riot — Alex Ross writes in The Rest is Noise that  “The brawlers were weeping, one witness said, and their cheers sounded like an apology.”  Schoenberg refused to appear on stage for a long time; he had completed most of Gurre-Lieder by 1903, and he knew that his public was cheering musical developments he had left behind several years earlier.  So, when he finally ascended the stage, he turned his back to the crowd, Miles Davis-style, and bowed to the musicians.

One can imagine that the public was not so pleased.  And thus we are brought to March 13, 1913 — two months, exactly, before the premiere of The Rite — and the Skandalkonzert.  An audience heard music by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern in the Musikverein.  Before the concert, Schoenberg wrote to Ernhard Buschbeck, one of the concert’s organizers, of the potential issues with the program:

 The first three numbers in the program are relatively dangerous.  Webern is the most dangerous, the Chamber Symphony relatively the least dangerous.  Therefore it is good if the public—while it is still fresh and patient at the beginning—must swallow the Webern first: the bitterst pill in this concert.

So a small fight broke out during this:

But the climax came at the premiere of Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, which set texts by the infamous poet Peter Altenberg.  Here’s Berg, on the incident:

After my first song someone shouted into the uproar: ‘Quiet, here comes the 2nd picture postcard!’ And after the words ‘plötzlich ist alles aus!’ [suddenly it is all over!] someone else shouted loudly: ‘Thank Heavens!’ By the way, it’s interesting that the ushers sided with those who were hissing and laughing.  Someone from the audience wanted to evict my student Kassowitz, who was applauding heartily, and two ushers were actually about to do it!  Many people threw small change at the people applauding in the standing room section—as payment for the claqueurs—Yes, that’s Vienna!

So the audience heard this:

And they erupted.  The police were called.  The ushers themselves apparently encouraged the riotous behavior, scandalized by Berg’s atonality.  Audience members even cruelly called out that Berg and Altenberg should be send to the madhouse, knowing full well that Altenberg himself  was already living in the State Mental Institution outside Vienna.  Buschbeck appeared in court several weeks later to pay a fine for hitting a member of the audience.  The operetta composer Oscar Straus testified at his trial:

The public was laughing.  And I openly confess, sir, that I laughed too, for why shouldn’t one laugh at something geunily comical?

Thus, a German word was born to refer to that night: Skandalkonzert.   Two months later, Paris heard The Rite, and made a valiant attempt to replicate Vienna’s outrage.  We’ll hear more about that next week — check in on Friday for a preview of this weekend’s upcoming Silk Road performances.  And don’t forget that you can watch The Rite’s riot on film, at Saturday night’s free screening of Coco & Igor at The Varsity.


-Will Robin


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