03 January 2013

Centenary Riots

While the pundits cite US Fiscal Cliffs, Euro Crises, increased frequency of Severe Weather Events and the Attitudes of the New Political Leadership in China as the things to watch out for in 2013, we musicians should keep at least one eye on the events of 1913 and hope that 2013 might see a resurgence of the kind of audience involvement which defined musical life a century ago.

Today audiences placidly applaud even the direst of performances and only ever seem to get really passionate when someone's mobile phone goes off or the person in front applauds between the movements of yet another anaemic performance of Chopin's anaemic piano concertos. I recall with a certain amount of longing an organ recital given by Malcolm Williamson in the Royal Festival Hall on 7th March 1971 when, after a dismal account of the Bach Prelude & Fugue in E flat, he was actually booed off stage. He returned and gave what Robin Langley in the Musical Times described, kindly, as a "committed if inaccurate account of Tournemire's austere Symphonie Sacrée", but was clearly badly shaken by the audience's reception. (That performance coming four days after a dramatic and unforgettable attempt by the French organist Xavier Darasse to give the first London performance of Ligeti's Volumina: as he leant forward and placed his forearms over the keys with all the stops drawn, he managed to fuse the whole organ.)

How different things were 100 years ago. A tantalising entry in the "Foreign Notes" section of the Musical Times dated 1st May 1913 reads; "Six particularly anarchistic orchestral pieces by Anton von Webern met with such violent disapproval that the concert had to be abandoned".
Here's what appears to have happened. The date was 31st March 1913 and the venue was the hallowed walls of Vienna's Musikverein. The Akademischen Verband für Literatur und Musik presented a concert which included the première of Webern's Six Pieces op.6 alongside performances of works by Zemlinsky (Four Orchestral Songs), Schoenberg (Chamber Symphony op.9), Berg (Five Orchestral Songs op.4) and Mahler (Kindertotenlieder). A short while into the Webern a section of the audience started hissing, only to be opposed by another section who started to applaud vociferously. The noise continued even after the performance stopped, and became even more animated after the Schoenberg. At that point fighting broke out in the balcony and Schoenberg, who was conducting, stopped the performance of the Berg after some of the audience hooted with derisory laughter. He announced that those making the noise would be forcibly evicted if they continued to do so, but that just inflamed the situation. Even more violent fighting broke out, and some were heard calling for honour to be satisfied through the holding of duels outside. Webern did nothing to calm matters by shouting from his box that "all the baggage should be thrown out", while those who objected to the music called out that the composers ought to be confined to the lunatic asylum. The Akademie's President pleaded with the audience to respect Mahler's memory by listening to his Kindertotenlieder in silence, but was shouted down and obliged to withdraw. Several audience members stormed up on to the stage sending the musicians scurrying off for their lives, and even then the rioting continued for another thirty minutes both inside the hall and out in the street.

Less than two months later came another musical riot. On 29th March the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris staged a performance by Diaghilev's Ballets Ruses. All went well for Les Sylphides, but then came the première of The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. A few bars into the work and derisory laughter from the audience so upset Stravinsky that he fled the auditorium. Behind him, things went from bad to worse and eventually the uproar was so loud that the dancers could no longer hear the music and had to rely on their choreographer backstage to call out the step numbers. Reports mention how, during the performance, "proponents and opponents resorted to fisticuffs to exchange opinions on the value of art", while one member of the audience complained that the person behind him got so animated that "he began to beat rhythmically on top of my head". The conductor of the performance, Pierre Monteux, later recalled how "two factions in the audience began attacking each other, but their mutual anger was soon diverted towards the orchestra. Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on". Diaghilev attempted to quieten things down by switching off the lights, and eventually the police and management ejected around 40 of the worst offenders from the theatre.

It must have been frightening to be in the midst of either riot, but how wonderful that audiences cared so much that they resorted to physical manifestations of their opinions. In 2013 it is usually left to the critic to utter some platitudinous comment on a new work, terrified in case he appears out of touch with modern trends, while audiences, if they voice an opinion at all, merely regurgitate what they have read from the critic or overheard from self-appointed experts in the bar. All of which begs the question; are audiences less interested in new music, or is new music less interesting in 2013?
Frankly, I find it difficult to tell one new soothing sequence of sounds by Morten Lauridsen, Paul Mealor, Eric Whitacre and the rest from another; how can anyone's hackles rise when faced with such aimless drivel oozing out of choirs in an unending stream? On the orchestral and dramatic front, we might expect composers of the calibre of Mark-Anthony Turnage or Unsuk Chin to offer up something thought-provoking, if not positively inspiring, but if there is a musical riot in 2013, it is a pretty safe bet it will have more to do with the sexual peccadillos of the performers or the political stance of the creators than the music itself.

There will be hundreds of premières around the world this year - the association of North American orchestras boasts that their members will be giving 165 by 150 composers. Surely that's too much new music for any one year, and under such pressures new composers are in danger of being thrust into the field before having properly established their creative credentials, while the more established ones have to spread their ideas so thinly that they become almost non-existent. On top of that audiences' critical faculties are dulled by the sheer overwhelming quantity of new music thrown at them. Add to that the toxic mix of mind-numbingly banal back-to-back "beautiful sounds" emanating from radio stations churning out 24 hour classical music wallpaper and the obsession with dismal performances of dire music which is the stuff of YouTube, and it is little wonder that audiences' expectations are dulled. They don't expect much from new music, and composers duly oblige by giving them nothing much; the aim is commercial conformity rather than intellectual discomfort. If only, just once, somebody could inspire audiences to get off their seats and voice an opinion, we might see some way out of the anodyne musical world that faces us in 2013.

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