Six outrageous performances that caused a stir

Just over a century on from the fiery premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Sam Mason-Jones explores other works that have caused a bit of a stir.

Oscar Chacon leads the 2013 Bolshoi Theatre production of the Rite of Spring.
Published: May 27, 2016 at 8:13 am

On the 29 May 1913, Igor Stravinsky exchanged darling buds for inflammatory cataclysm during an evening that has gone down in the classical music annals – namely, the anarchic reception which greeted the premiere of The Rite of Spring. As the orchestra tuned up in Paris's Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that night, so too did the atmosphere, which was tightly drawn between two polarised factions within the audience. The introductory bassoon strains provided the requisite spark to ignite the tension between the two sides: the wealthy, fashionable set in the boxes and the insurgent ‘Bohemians' below. The ensuing riot drowned out the voice of Vaslav Nijinsky who led the dance onstage, yet could not stop the orchestra who dutifully continued to play until the last.


This reaction, doubtless embellished and contorted to its mythical status, has arguably become more famous than the ballet itself. But which other works have experienced similarly tumultuous early performances? Here are six of the better known ones…

Berg: Five Orchestral Songs on Picture-Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg
Vienna, 31 March 1913

A similar uproar had been raised two months before that famous night in Paris, as revolution raged in the nostrils of a Europe teetering on the brink of war. And thanks to Alban Berg and his colleagues in the Second Viennese School, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, its ears were similarly incensed. Audience tempers had simmered at the expressionism and experimentalism colouring the performances of Webern and Schoenberg’s work, and eventually boiled over after two of Berg’s Five Orchestral Songs on Picture- Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg. The resultant fracas saw concert organiser Erhard Buschbeck administer a volley of punches, the thuds of which were described by composer Oscar Straus as the ‘most harmonious sound of the evening’, and the evening subsequently branded ‘Skandalkonzert’.

Richard Strauss: Salome
New York, 22 January 1907

Richard Strauss’s operatic reimagining of an Oscar Wilde play, Salome represents a checklist of taboo, with execution, incest and necrophilia all featuring in the sordid tale. It is perhaps unsurprising that audiences did not take too kindly to the sight of a woman passionately kissing the severed head of John the Baptist, or that the opera had been censured variously before its New York debut in January 1907; or that this caused something of a ruckus in the Big Apple, with violent pressure from wealthy patrons ensuring that all further performances were cancelled. Despite considerable pressure for him to lead objections to the work, Edward Elgar refused to yield his position of admiration for Strauss, calling him ‘the greatest genius of the age’.

Satie: Mercure
Paris, 15 June, 1924

Seven years after the first collaboration between Erik Satie and Pablo Picasso, the ballet Parade, had all but caused a riot at the Théâtre du Châtelet, its successor, Mercure, went the distance when it premiered across town at La Cigale. The mood in the stalls, consisting largely of the rival cliques who were then perpetuating Paris’s cultural infighting, was poisonous from the off, with chants of 'Bravo Picasso! Down with Satie!' emanating from the back of the auditorium before the curtain had been fully raised. Indeed, said curtain had to be lowered again during Tableau II as a result of the resultant carnage, with the police eventually called to restore order and eject the rowdy demonstrators.

Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin
Cologne, 27 November 1926

The first production of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin provoked both a scathing reaction on the night and a lasting legacy which saw the pantomime ballet banned on moral grounds, with the piece only ever existing in concert suite form for the rest of the composer’s life. The action of the ballet’s scandalous one act centres around three thugs and a young girl, who they force to stand by the window and saucily coax men into their lair, in order to rob them. It closes with the death of the eponymous Mandarin, who, having miraculously survived three mortal wounds inflicted by the thugs’ rusty sword, eventually succumbs to them in the arms of the girl, his longing fulfilled. The lewd subject matter engendered a furore within the crowd, who walked out in frenzied protest.

Steve Reich: Four Organs
New York, 18 January

Nearly three years after Four Organs had been well received at its premiere at the Guggenheim Museum, Steve Reich did not receive quite as warm a reception when he brought his organ quartet back to New York in the first month of 1973. Whether it was the certain harmonies expounded by his’s revolutionary ‘deconstruction’ of the chord or the constant rhythm provided by an unassuming maraca, for one reason or another the audience at the Carnegie Hall that night did not take kindly to the piece. Nor were they reticent in their disapproval: mingled with yells for the music to stop was applause to expedite its conclusion. Condcutor Michael Tilson Thomas, one of the performers that night, recalls how one woman walked down the aisle before repeatedly banging her head on the stage, shouting, 'Stop, stop, I confess!'

Harrison Birtwistle: Panic
London, 16 September 1995


Though the well-worked formula of mixed programming – which allies crowd-pleasing favourites with more avant-garde, experimental pieces – has underscored the Proms since their inception in 1895, a century later Harrison Birtwistle induced a public outcry that noone could have foreseen. The aptly named Panic premiered on the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall: a devastating vortex of unremitting energy, the work was critically panned, referred to both as ‘a horrible cacophony’ and ‘unmitigated rubbish’. More notable, though, was the response of the British public, millions of whom were listening to the BBC’s broadcast of the concert. The Beeb’s audience line quickly buckled under the proliferating diatribes that subsequently swamped it, with angry viewers voicing their discontent at what they called 'a disgrace and an insult to the British public'. It was turmoil that Stravinsky himself would have relished; a very modern manifestation of a centuries-old riotous intent.

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