100 Years After Stravinsky's 'Rite,' Can Classical Music Still Shock?

Monday, April 29, 2013

On May 29, 1913, the Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring provoked a riot: whistling and booing, catcalls and fisticuffs overran the performance and the police were called in to quiet the angry crowd. It became one of the most celebrated scandals in music history.

Today, The Rite of Spring is practically an audience favorite and rioting in concert halls is unthinkable. But is this a good thing? Does classical music need more shock value, more scandals?

In his latest column for BBC Music Magazine, music critic Richard Morrison argues that classical music needs more Rite-style uproar. "Never in my 30 years as a critic have I witnessed that kind of reaction," Morrison tells host Naomi Lewin in this podcast. "It just struck me that maybe we’re a bit too polite these days and composers aren’t provoking us enough."

Composers today rarely seek the label enfant terrible, added Morrison. "I think they rather like to be liked rather than creating an uproar."

Leon Botstein, the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and president of Bard College, believes the reason audiences were shocked by the Rite of Spring was a sense of ownership over a received musical language. Classical music signaled respectability to audiences "and these young composers were sticking their proverbial finger in their eye."

But Botstein believes that many of today's concert-goers lack a frame of reference for challenging new music. "The problem is the audience is musically illiterate and therefore if you want to do something very daring and sophisticated you’re presuming a literate audience," said Botstein, who will devote the 2013 Bard Music Festival to Stravinsky. "So there’s very little for a composer to push back on. That’s the dilemma they face."

To some extent, it isn't possible to shock audiences because everything seems to have been done. By the 1960s, composers had explored the outer extremes of total Serialism, computer music and John Cage-style chance. The hybrid, postmodern styles embraced by composers in the last two decades, by contrast, are seldom driven by a need to provoke. Even Minimalism, a style that provoked an uproar with the 1973 premiere of Steve Reich's Four Organs, is now part of the mainstream, featured in film scores and TV commercials.

Morrison believes that classical music has long shifted between radical and conservative modes. "If you look at the history of classical music, it’s a very fine balance between tradition and revolution," he noted. "You had Haydn and Mozart, who were craftsman in an established tradition. But then you had Beethoven who came and turned everything upside down. You need both polarities."

But Botstein doesn't believe that headline-making disturbances are what's needed to move classical music forward in the name of progress. "I don’t think classical music should be about scandal or riots," he argued. "Leave it to football matches, leave it to political rallies. This is an entirely different art form and I think we should walk away from the way Hollywood makes success."

Weigh in: Should classical music do more to shock audiences? Is it possible to shock anymore? Take our poll and leave your comments below.


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Comments [14]

Rick Hefner

Stephen Malinowski just can't help himself. A perfectly vibrant discussion about the Rite of Spring, yet somehow Stephen Malinowski finds a way to interject himself into the discussion as if his visual creation is somehow in the same league as Stravinsky. For those who are interested in reading a lively debate on classical music, its future, and how individuals like Stephen Malinowski are misleading the masses and the cultural elite, read the following blog: http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2013/05/the-friday-post.html

Sep. 16 2014 09:13 PM
Merlijn Twaalfhoven from Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Well mr Botstein, I agree that we don't have a collective sense of ownership over a current musical language anymore. But that's not because we're illiterate! Rather the opposite: we are obese on information, impressions, music. We learned to quickly scan the abundance of concerts on offer and choose what fits our taste or mood.
If we don't like the music, we blame ourselves because we should have chosen better. That's why nobody leaves a concert hall anymore before the end. We learned to select.
In 1913 people didn't select. They attended a concert because it was expected from them to be there. There was a unique discourse about the current state of the arts. Today there are infinite parallel discourses. It's rare that we collectively care for something. In The Netherlands, by surprise there was a collective uprising against an ugly song that was composed for the King to be. Apparently, the song touched a rare sense of collective ownership and was widely felt as an insult.

May. 02 2013 05:30 PM
Christopher St Clair from Brooklyn, NY

I am seldom shocked - the word invokes some sort of moral ground that has been shaken; I stand on no such ground and try to keep an open mind. Now, surprise and awe, those are great and I enjoy every moment of them. For me, the most wonderful thing with the arts is their inexhaustible depth, so, the more I know a musical piece, the more it is likely I will be surprised by something I had failed to notice before. Familiarity with the social context behind the work helps. You may call it "shock," but sometimes a brief dissonance in a Mozart piece stuns me, as I envision his era and how revolutionary that tiny dissonance was then - and how subtly he hid it among all those "too many notes." With that mindset, I do the opposite when I listen to 20th and 21st-century music: I listen for the familiarity in the (seemingly) entirely new, and the shock disappears. An excellent instructor in this subject is Prokofiev, who traveled across eras and genres with the greatest ease. Hearing his Classical symphony, then his second and his third, is certainly a "shock" - but after you've absorbed each note well, you realize they all have the same foundation, even contain echoes of each other. So, do we need to be shocked? Perhaps not: perhaps we merely need to learn to hear the story we already love told in a new language.

May. 02 2013 03:36 PM
RIck Robinson from Detroit

What I admired about romanticism was it tended to alternate inevitability and surprise... Dramatic and harmonic tension and release. While perhaps rarely so shocking the great composers got a bad review, their artistic climax was good enough without a bang! I'll choose a Brahms Symphony over most 20th-Century... just 'cause it feels like great SEX. That's one reason why I chose to write in neo-romantic modes. Does that shock you? I blend it with sexy rock, Latin and blues flavors.

And America for the most part doesn't set out to be the leader of taste, compared to France, presumably because we're individuating so. Live Free or Die. remember?

May. 02 2013 03:13 PM
Carson Kievman from Miami Beach

In 1979, during a preview performance of "Wake Up, It's Time to Go To Bed!," "Multinationals & the Heavens" & "The Temporary & Tentative Extended Piano" a triple bill of my music-theater works at the Public Theater in NYC (produced by Joseph Papp), a screaming match (brilliant vs. dreadful) as well as a fist-fight broke out in the audience, temporarily suspending the performance and requiring theater personnel to activity get involved and quiet the disturbance. The limited run production opened the following week and went on to 56 sold-out critically acclaimed performances. While not a full blown riot everyone involved were astonished. Carson Kievman (http://www.carsonkievman.com)

May. 02 2013 09:12 AM
Eric Benjamin from Alliance, Ohio

Should be mentioned that the shock on the part of the premiere audience in Paris in 1913 was probably caused more by the choreography than the music. A Parisian concert performance of the work a year later was a triumph, with Stravinsky carried out of the hall on shoulders and feted.

I think "shock" as a value in itself, is empty.

May. 02 2013 08:57 AM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

Music that is good and "shocking" is music that is composed sincerely that coincidentally causes shock in the audience. Of course, a performance could be arranged wherein the orchestra members do not take the stage or the temperature of the hall is elevated as part of the composition in order to simply annoy the audience. However, these would not be sincere compositional efforts.

In the above scenario, audience annoyance would be the result of simple manipulation and charlatanism. It would not even be a clash of aesthetics.

In the case of the Rite of Spring, the work was composed and choreographed as a sincere musical offering. It may have resulted in a clash of musical and ballet taste, but not because Stravinsky was attempting some sort of joke. It may be that the more genuine the composer is perceived the stronger the element of shock.

May. 02 2013 12:11 AM
BKoch from Philadelphia

Stephen the animated score is awesome. I enjoyed it very much and am particularly fascinated by its ability to help me hear more of this amazing score. Thanks for sharing this.

May. 01 2013 10:57 PM
Richard Atkinson from New York, New York

The wasteland of gimmickry that classical music has become in the past 50 years is the direct result of this kind of attitude. Everything is done for shock value, and the pieces end up failing even to shock (how many ridiculous prepared piano pieces by graduate students does one have to sit through before it is no longer shocking? two?). The Rite of Spring was and is still pivotal because of its musical value, not because certain listeners found it shocking. Stravinsky was a genius, and his music is genius. Contemporary composers who begin with the idea that they must shock at all cost are successful only in being shockingly horrible.

May. 01 2013 04:06 PM

I agree with the quote at the end of the article. Shock for shock's sake is tacky. Most artists don't do things just to upset people - their ideas are so out of left-field they result in a shock. I am contemptuous of people who break a rule just because it's there. It makes me want to say 'whatever you do, don't drink that poison' just so they get put out of my misery. Those who live to shock invariably hit a wall - once you're naked you're naked.

On a side note, many people think of the 1930's as a golden age in filmmaking. It also happened to be the time when the moral codes were the strictest. People couldn't resort to vulgarity, so they were forced to be more creative. Artists need to ask themselves if they are being true to their voice or just trying to drum up publicity.

Apr. 30 2013 05:19 PM
Frederick Kettering from Bainbridge Island, WA

I think the issue hangs on the nature of the composition and the nature of the shock. Rite of Spring (like late Beethoven) was shocking only because contemporary audiences weren't ready to hear surprising new sounds (or new complexities) in "classical" formats. With time and education, the shock turns to acceptance and eventually admiration. The situation is different with solely or primarily conceptual composition, like much of John Cage's work: an idea is made audible; it shocks its first audience; over time, neither the idea nor the performance of it changes; it now bores its audience. This is rather like the shock of Picasso versus the shock of Duchamp. One engendered a lot of great art; the other a lot of derivative ideas about art.

Apr. 30 2013 12:21 PM

I think the only people who can truly be shocked by classical music are people who have a very limited frame of reference. Case in point: Me as a child. Prior to age 13 or so I only knew about the Three B's (mainly Bach and Beethoven) and had flute teachers who assigned me Handel, Telemann, Mozart, and the like. Then one day I turned on the radio and discovered Bela Bartok and from there I devoured almost every major early-20th-Century composer I could. For me, "Rite of Spring" was literally an ecstatic experience.

All these years later I'm a classical music listener because I experienced the glorious shock of 20th-Century music. Very few of my friends listen to classical music precisely because their frame of reference is limited to what they lump under "elevator music." Maybe they should bring elevator music back...starting with something relatively safe, like Ravel's "Bolero"? :)

Apr. 30 2013 10:38 AM
Horizon from Brussels

Bostonians find catharsis in Stravinsky, by Michael Johnson

Apr. 30 2013 09:31 AM
Stephen Malinowski from Northern California

The last few months, I've been working on an animated graphical score of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. As of this month, it is complete:

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02tkp6eeh40
Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2y90hH4H7Q


Stephen Malinowski
Music Animation Machine

Apr. 30 2013 01:21 AM

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