Top Five Crazy Riots in Classical Music

Thursday, January 12, 2012

	Demonstrators (back), protesting against the Italian government's austerity budget cuts, clash with riot policemen outside La Scala Demonstrators protest the Italian government outside La Scala (Giuseppe Aresu/AFP/Getty Images)

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:

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Comments [14]


IN the 50's, midway during a student recital, some FSU music students released a bag full of bats captured during a trip to local caves. On the stage was a portly little sacred music major with horn-rims. ( He looked a bit like Porky Pig.) The bats gathered in a giant flight and proceeded to buzz the stage, making the singer duck. Students, of course went bonkers.
Asst. Deans ran to get the Dean, who asked "who did this"? Every single student stood up. About 500 or so.

Now they claim this never happened,but if FSU stands for 1000 years, THIS would be its finest hour.

Oct. 22 2012 07:11 AM
jprfrog from Jersey City

I was in the BSO in 1973. A violinist, I didn't play he Reich. But I went out to hear it and was at the back of the hall when the audience began to get restless. Gradually, as the organs repeated that a 7th chord over and over (surrounded by several percussion players slowly shaking maracas) a low-level murmur began. Recall that these were mostly elderly New York fans of the Boston Symphony, well-accustomed to concert behavior, so you had to really try hard to outrage them. People began walking out past me, often being very vocally (and somewhat obscene) about their feelings. I keft after about 10 minutes (I was not impressed with the then new "minimalist" shtick: my tastes in 20th century music run to Berg, Webern, and Boulez.) I missed the lady with the shoe and never heard about it until now. I regret that.

One thing you missed was a 1969 (I think) Carnegie Hall "Norma" which was the debut of Elena Suliotis, who missed a high note and the result could have taken place in the bleachers at Ebbets Field, although most of the shouting was in Italian. Another was when G David Schine (of Joe McCarthy fame) "conducted" the Boston Pops on Harvard Reunion night in 1974. It's the only time I was ever actually physically afraid while on a concert stage.

In general, after 40 years of symphony p[laying, I would rather an unhappy audience boo and hiss rather than go to sleep. It would make us all more honest.

Jan. 16 2012 08:24 AM
auspiciousbunny from North Jersey

As a member of the Harry Partch Ensemble while at college, I recall one concert during which an ensemble member's grandma stood up and declared "This isn't music!" loudly and irately during one of the works we were performing!

Jan. 15 2012 10:04 PM
Alonso Alegria from Lima Peru

In Lima back in the 60s Hans-Gunther Mommer, a very good German musician, was conductor of the Peruvian National Symphony. Vacationing in Munich, Mommer gave a German magazine interview telling some not-too-kind truths about his Peruvian musicians. This interview made the news in Lima and everyone who was anyone in music had an opinion about it. The first concert after the conductors return began with Petroushka. As Mommer's baton came down for the orchestra to begin that first beautiful atmospheric moment, most of the brass section, particularly the trombones, rose to their feet playing the Peruvian National Anthem at the top of their lungs. Mommer, however, went right on beating Stravinsky's time right through the brass din, which was compounded by the audience's yells of "Viva el Peru" on the one hand and "Disciplina, disciplina" on the other. After about five minutes of this, the brass section sat down and, little by little and one by one, began to play their rightful notes.

Jan. 14 2012 12:03 AM
Robert Auletta from New York City

In August of 1993 my modern, Gulf War version of Aeschylus's the Persians, directed by Peter Sellars, caused a near riot at the Mark Taper Forum in LA. Like Aeschylus, we told the story from the point of view of the victims, who, in this case were the Iraqis, who had been recently blown apart by American weaponry in the First Gulf War. Hundreds of people ran out. At first I was devastated, then exhilarated realizing that theater really had the power to both enrage and enlighten. This behavior continued during most of the run but many people who would not have come otherwise,came and stayed.

Jan. 13 2012 01:22 PM
Barbara Brinker from West side

A funny story re "interuptions" One time when attending an off-bway production of "Julius Ceasar" an off stage phone rang right after Ceasar had been stabbed. One of the actors said "I hope that's not for Ceasar"

Jan. 13 2012 12:28 PM
Joe from NY, NY

Regarding the disruption of the 1930 Weill/Brecht opera premiere: today it is easy to view such actions in distain. If however, we had a flavor of zeitgeist of 1920s/30s in Germany or drill down further we begin to understand why. Essentially Germany (as well as the US) had a real and justifiable concern of communism/communists. Brecht, and perhaps to lesser degree Weill, were communist and their opera indirectly promoted their political ideologies. In fact, after WWII, Brecht intentionally returned to the Soviet controlled East Germany. It would have been nice if the author of this top five provided a bit more color and reasoning.

Jan. 13 2012 10:26 AM

Another one that could deserve (honorable?) mention was the fight at the Boston Pops a few years ago. There's still a YouTube video of it out there for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy:

Jan. 13 2012 09:53 AM
mark from brooklyn

I was at a recital by Anne Sophie Mutter and a piano accompanist at Carnegie Hall a few years ago when a man shouted out something in German in the middle of a piece. Of course they kept right on going. Later someone next to me said that he had shouted "the piano is not in tune with the violin." He must have had a delicate ear.

Jan. 13 2012 09:37 AM
Freedom from NYC

And whoever said classical music was boring.

Jan. 13 2012 09:31 AM
Bernie from UWS

I've not witnessed anything really crazy inside the hall but I have seen protesters outside Carnegie on a few occasions. When the Vienna Phil brought its all-mens' club to town back in the 90s, women's rights groups used to picket by the marquee. And the Israel Philharmonic always inevitably brings out protesters too. Frankly, I'd rather have strong reactions like the Rite of Spring than people snoring near me at Avery Fisher, which is often what I encounter there.

Jan. 13 2012 08:23 AM
Michael Meltzer

If the crowd at “Rite of Spring” was looking for any license to erupt as they did, they must have felt they were given it by none other than the most powerfully connected composer in France, Camille St. Saëns. With the entry of the solo bassoon announcing the opening theme way above its normal range (in those days), St. Saëns is said to have loudly commented, “WHAT instrument is THAT?” and stood up to walk out with his entourage.
St. Saëns is thought to have been waiting most of his life for the Romantic Movement to go away, Stravinsky didn’t seem to be the way he wanted it to happen.

Jan. 13 2012 03:35 AM
michael p from usa

many years ago and the memory is rather hazy now....
believe it was shirley verret who was performing the wessondonck lieder with the cincinnati symphony (believe conductor was thomas shippers)..anyway the audience was following the performance with the printed text/translation and the VERY audible of the page turning was not appreciated-memory tells me performance was actually stopped and the audience discretely chastised. ironically years later i was in istanbul and again shirley verret was scheduled to do a recital in the historic irene church. she deemed the venue too dank and inhospitable. the audience, myself included who showed up at the irene had to be bused to the modern ataturk center miles away in a place called taxsim.

Jan. 13 2012 12:47 AM
George Damasevitz from New York

It was about 1970 and Lukas Foss was conducting a Sunday matinee with the Buffalo Philharmonic. The front orchestra was filled with older ladies and my date and I were behind them. Foss used to like to introduce new music at these concerts and one piece was by a Japanese composed whose name escapes me. Halfway through the piece the ladies in front of us became bored and started chatting with one another. At length, Foss, visibly shaken, concluded the piece. He then turned around and gave our section a well deserved public tongue lashing. I was mortified and have avoided matinees since then.

Jan. 12 2012 10:01 PM

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