In the wake of the ringtone-gate at the New York Philharmonic, much attention has focused on the audience member with the stray cellphone ring. But what to make of the angry reaction from other patrons, who literally got on their feet and shouted at the offender? In fact, every so often, anarchy is unleashed across the carefully-preserved countryside of classical music. Here are five highlights:
1. 1913: Flying Canes and Crushed Fedoras for Stravinsky
The Ballets Russes premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in Paris literally touched off a riot. It wasn’t just the score’s discordant harmonies and thudding drums that upset the audience but also the choreography by Vaslav Nijinski. As the ballet progressed, so did the audience's discomfort. Those in favor began to argue with those in opposition. Arguments turned to brawls and the police arrived at intermission to quiet the angry crowd. Yet as the second half commenced, police were unable to keep the audience under control and the rioting resumed.
Conductor Pierre Monteux later recalled: “One of my bass players… told me that many a gentleman’s shiny top hat or soft fedora was ignominiously pulled by an opponent down over his eyes and ears, and canes were brandished like menacing implements of combat all over the theater.” Stravinsky fled, saying that the noise in the house made much of the music inaudible.
2. 1930: Nazi Sympathizers Disrupt Weill Opera
Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht aimed their satirical barbs at Germany's depraved and politically tumultuous capital city of Berlin in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The opera premiered in Leipzig in 1930 to one the most scandalous receptions of the era as organized bands of right-wing agitators were stationed in the audience. They had already demonstrated in front of the opera house on the afternoon before the premiere and here they created even greater commotion. Lotte Lenya later recalled: “The performance [was] well under way before I was startled out of my absorption by the electric tension around us, something strange and ugly… by the time the last scene was reached the riot had spread to the stage.”
3. 1973: Steve Reich Sets Off Carnegie Hall Commotion
Carnegie Hall has been the scene of occasional disturbances. In 1973, a Boston Symphony concert featuring standard fare by Mozart and Liszt also included Steve Reich's minimalist classic Four Organs. The repetitive nature of the music provoked an outcry from some audience members, including an elderly woman strode to the front of the hall, removed her shoe and bludgeoned the lip of the stage with it, demanding that the ruckus stop.
"The audience made at least three serious attempts to halt the piece," conductor Michael Tilson Thomas remembered in a 1980s interview. "They made so much noise that I had to yell the numbers - I had to look over at Steve and mouth very loudly '17, 18, 19' or whatever count we were on. We kept going, even though people were having fist-fights in the audience."
"There was so much noise," Steve Reich said later.
4. 1861: Whistling and Catcalls Greet Wagner
In 1861, Richard Wagner broke with tradition by insisting on placing the prescribed ballet in the first act of Tannhauser rather than the second for its Paris premiere. He offended both management and the members of the prestigious Jockey Club, who went to the ballet to see their favorite ballerinas perform. They staged an elaborately organized protest, complete with cat-calls and noisy, engraved silver whistles. The fall-out of the affair was tremendous and became a cause cèlèbre for the complex interfaces of music, aesthetics and politics in the nineteenth century.
5. 1917: Satie's Noisy Instruments Provoke Equally Noisy Backlash
Parade, the first collaboration between Erik Satie and Pablo Picasso, should have been an easy crowd-pleaser. But the score contained several "noise-making" instruments (typewriter, foghorn) as well as popular styles like Ragtime – enough to upset some of the patrons who got agitated and began screaming and yelling. Historians note that the whole thing was orchestrated by Jean Cocteau, who created the one-act scenario and showed his eagerness to create a succès de scandale.
Weigh in: Have you ever experienced any surprising behavior in the concert hall? Tell us about it below: