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Top 5 Musical Works that Set Paris Aflame

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Allons enfants de la Patrie, liberté, egalité and fraternité are noble causes, but they’re not the only qualities that can stir Parisians to a riot. In the 19th and 20th centuries, artists considered it a success if they could cause a scandal by the power of their works. Serge Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes impresario, made a priority of this. In honor of Bastille Day, here are WQXR's top 5 musical pieces that incited Paris.

The most infamous riot in music history came on May 29, 1913 as Parisians took to the streets in the wake of The Rite of Spring. The rumblings of scandal rippled from the start. The venerable and mild-mannered Camille Saint-Saëns stormed out of the theater measures into the music. Nijinsky’s choreography for the Ballet Russes only fanned the flame. After the performance, “a policeman pushed his way to my side in an effort to protect me,” Stravinsky later recalled.

Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique received mixed reviews when it premiered in 1830, but eight years later audiences hissed his opera Benvenuto Cellini, about a 16th century Italian goldsmith, off the stage. It closed after three performances and was only revived 14 years later. It still receives rare stagings. The overture, however, has become a staple of symphonic orchestra repertoire.

Debussy’s famous orchestral poem Afternoon of a Faun scandalized Parisian society twice. First, at its 1894 premiere, audiences were so enraptured with the new work they demanded a spontaneous encore of the piece. Sixteen years later, Nijinsky scandalized the city with an elicit dance that Le Figaro described as having “erotic bestiality and gestures of heavy shamelessness.”

Edgar Varèse, who’s currently enjoying a posthumous moment in New York as ICE ensemble presents his complete works, caused an uproar in Paris with his Déserts well after he immigrated to New York. The piece was set to premiere on December 2, 1954 in between Mozart and Tchaikovsky. The accompanying radio broadcast of the piece was obscured by the vehement jeering, and the radio studio that produced it almost lost its funding.

The always controversial Diaghilev inspired the barely 28-year-old Jean Cocteau to look for his own succès de scandale and Cocteau did just that in his ballet Parade. Cocteau joined forces with Pablo Picasso, who provided movement-inhibiting cubist costumes, and Erik Satie’s score which included typewriters, foghorn and milk bottles among the instruments. The three were called “cultural anarchists” and Satie received an eight-day prison sentence after an altercation with a critic.