The Riotous Debut of Stravinsky


The riots that erupted in Paris after the 1913 debut of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring made the ballet famous, but that year of musical chaos didn’t begin with Stravinsky. Two months before the Paris debacle, the same sort of thing had already happened in response to an orchestral concert in Vienna.

On the evening of Monday, March 31, 1913, the program at the big Musikvereinsaal included the Kindertotenlieder of the late Gustav Mahler, Songs with Orchestra by Alexander von Zemlinsky, the symphonic poem Pelléas and Mélisande by Arnold Schoenberg, and works by his protégés Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

Avant garde works by Webern sparked hisses and laughter that his supporters drowned out with applause. The Zemlinsky songs, more conventional, brought calm, but Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, several years old by the time of the concert, brought a protest expressed with rattling keys, which persisted through loud clapping.

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At the sound of songs by Berg, the audience lost all control, and a shouted threat by Schoenberg to call the police just made things worse. From his box above the fray, Webern bellowed that the troublemakers should be ejected from the concert hall, and received an answer that anyone who liked his kind of music should be hauled off to the local lunatic asylum.

A policeman who came in was powerless to stop the proceedings. Someone went to the conductor’s stand and pleaded for quiet so that Mahler’s work could be heard, but was quickly forced to use his fists.

The frenzied crowd poured onto the stage, where the musicians sat too frozen with fear to leave the hall. Half an hour passed before the combatants finally left.

A resulting lawsuit included testimony from a doctor who stated that the effect of “such music” was “enervating and injurious to the nervous system.”

Although he would become a major force in twentieth century music, Arnold Schoenberg would continue to struggle with detractors for the rest of his contentious career.