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

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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.