Riots & Scandals: Pieces that rocked the world

Riots & Scandals

Riots & Scandals: Pieces that rocked the world

The first of two festivals the Houston Symphony performs this season highlights some of the works that scandalized the artistic establishments of their day. Read on to learn more about the pieces the Symphony will perform during the Riots & Scandals Festival January 13–22 and others that had less than desirable performances.

The Miraculous Mandarin

by Béla Bartók

With the defeat of Austria-Hungary in World War I, Bartók and his family experienced depression and despair, along with many others across Europe. To make matters worse, in 1919, Bartók was accused of being a traitor to Hungary, and, having finished the piano sketch of The Miraculous Mandarin not long before, Bartók lost hope of securing a performance for the piece in Budapest. Years later, he orchestrated the work and premiered it on November 27, 1926, in Cologne, Germany. The story of Mandarin is one of violence and sexuality with which three tramps, assisted by a girl, aim to rob the passers-by. The first two victims have no money and are thrown back to the streets, but the third, a Chinese man, is not. The girl is forced to seduce the man before the tramps attempt to murder him three times, but he refuses to die until embraced by the girl. The audience’s reaction was less than desirable. The premiere’s conductor Eugen Szenkár recalled the uproar: “At the end of the performance, there was a concert of whistling and catcalls! Bartók was present, sitting in the auditorium as he had at all three rehearsals. The uproar was so deafening and lengthy that the fire curtain had to be brought down. Nevertheless, we endured it and weren’t afraid to appear in front of the curtain, at which point the whistles resumed with a vengeance. It could have been there were isolated ‘Bravos,’ but everything was lost beneath the tumult!” The piece was immediately banned from being performed in Germany.

Le sacre de printemps (The Rite of Spring)

by Igor Stravinsky

In 1910 Paris, Stravinsky was riding high on the acceptance of his most recent ballet, The Firebird. A few years prior, while finishing The Firebird, a pagan rite vision came to Stravinsky, and thus was born The Rite of Spring. Partnering with Nikolai Roerich, an expert at the time on prehistoric Russia, the pair worked to bring Stravinsky’s artistic vision to life while ensuring the authenticity of ancient Slavic rituals. The story tells of an offering of sacrifice to the god of Spring to gain his admiration. On May 28, 1913, an unexpecting audience gathered at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées to see the Ballet Russes perform Les sylphides, Borodin’s Polovitsian Dances from Prince Igor, and a new work by Stravinsky. The scandal started with the suggestive choreography and only worsened with the story and music’s harsh, brutal rhythms and dissonance. With protestors against Russia, Diaghilev (Ballet Russes director), and Nijinsky (the Rite’s choreographer) in Paris at the time, a disruption may have occurred before the first note. But nonetheless, the piece sparked outrage, and The Rite of Spring became “some kind of gate to modernism, to the 20th Century”.


by Thomas Arne

One of the few operas written in English at the time, Artaxerxes is loosely based on the story of Artaxerxes I of Persia, the successor of Xerxes I after his assassination. While the piece was not entirely accepted by the public, the music was not the reason for the riot. A mob stormed the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden in the middle of the performance, protesting the rescindment of half-priced tickets. The boxes suffered the worst damage; the benches were torn up, linings cut out, and wooden pillars between them cut away. Chandeliers and other glass in the theater were broken, and seats in the pit were torn out. By the turn of the 19th century, Artaxerxes became popular in Europe, and every British music lover became familiar with it. But the Victorians almost ruined Thomas Arne for posterity by ensuring “his name become synonymous with expansionist nationalism.”


In February 1913, three months before the premiere of The Rite of Spring, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder was performed with great success. However, Schoenberg was offended by previous conservative attitudes held by the Viennese public and dismissed the applause. A few weeks later, the audience took revenge on Schoenberg at what later became known as Skandalkonzert. The Skandalkonzert program consisted of music by Second Viennese School composers: Altenberg Lieder by Alban Berg, Six Pieces for Orchestra by Anton Webern, Chamber Symphony No. 1 by Schoenberg, and Kindertotenlieder by Mahler. The audience, shocked by the expressionism and experimentalism, began rioting, ending the concert abruptly before Kindertotenlieder. Alban Berg’s piece was not performed again until 1952.


by Satie

Written in 1924 by Eric Satie, with an original set and costumes by Picasso and choreography by Léonide Massine, this ballet is subtitled “Plastic Poses in Three Tableaux.” The three tableaus and characters are loosely drawn from Greek and Roman mythology, following a vague story of Mercury, the winged messenger. Mercury, jealous of Venus and Apollo, kills and then revives Apollo. As The Three Fates dance, Mercury steals their three pearls and flees, chased by Cerberus, the three-headed dog. During a feast held by Bacchus, Mercury convinces Chaos to kidnap Proserpine and carry her off in a chariot. Much like at The Rite of Spring, the audience had groups for and against Picasso and Satie, with one supporting group attempting to get Picasso to join them. As the performance began, shouts erupted from the audience, cheering for Picasso and booing Satie. Arguments between the groups broke out, and the curtain had to be lowered while police were called to eject the demonstrators. Once order was restored, the performance continued.

List to all these pieces then hear The Miraculous Mandarin and The Rite of Spring live as part of the Symphony's Riots & Scandals Festival January 13–15 and 20–22. Tickets are selling fast!

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