Back in Austria where we started our 1913 survey…
On February 23, 1913, Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder received their premiere at the Musikverein, Vienna’s temple to the grand Mitteleuropa symphonic tradition and venue of the annual New Year’s Day concert to this day. These songs represented a style Schoenberg had since abandoned in favour of more radical musical experimentation, inspiring Alban Berg, Anton Webern and others who would form what would later be termed the Second Viennese School. When, against expectation, the audience warmly applauded the performance and Schoenberg was called on stage, he kept his back to the audience in contempt.
A little more than a month later he was back, with his back to the audience once again, but this time conducting. It was the same day that a theatre in Paris was opening, and the evening took a turn which presaged that venue’s most notorious performance. What was remarkable is that the audience’s fury was not set off by a major work such as the Sacre du printemps, with its stabbing, provocative rhythms which more or less demanded some kind of response. Instead it was a single chord, of a few seconds’ duration, which so vexed the Wieners. Nor did it come from Schoenberg, but rather a contemplative piece by Alban Berg, a setting of a short, impressionistic “postcard text” by troubled poet Peter Altenberg. Audience members shouted that composer and conductor belonged in Steinhof, a Viennese mental clinic, a particularly pointed jibe considering that Altenberg was already known to be immured in said institution.
In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross describes how the evening unfolded onstage and in the audience:
The scandal to end all scandals erupted on March 31, 1913, again in the storied Musikverein. The program mapped Schoenberg’s world, past, present, and future. There were songs by Alexander Zemlinsky, Schoenberg’s only teacher; if the police had not intervened, the audience would have heard Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. Schoenberg was represented by the First Chamber Symphony. And new works by Berg and Webern offered up sonic phenomena that not even Schoenberg had yet imagined. The breaking point came during Berg’s song “Über die Grenzen des All,” or “Beyond the Limits of the Universe,” a setting of a brief, tantalizing poem by Peter Altenberg, at the beginning of which the winds and brass play a chord of twelve separate pitches – as if all the keys between two Cs on a piano were being made to sound at once.
“Loud laughter rang throughout the hall in response to that squawking, grinding chord,” one witness recalled. (It must have been a poor performance, because the chord is supposed to be very soft.) There were physical scuffles, and the police were called. A Dr. Viktor Albert complained that Erhard Buschbeck, the youthful organizer of the concert, had boxed him on the ears. Buschbeck responded that Dr. Albert had called him a “rascal,” making physical retaliation necessary. A lawsuit followed. “The public was laughing,” the operetta composer Oscar Straus testified in court. “And I openly confess, sir, that I laughed, too, for why shouldn’t one laugh at something genuinely comical?” The sound of the scuffle, Straus quipped, was the most harmonious sound of the evening.
[ASIDE: the issue of the Neue Freie Presse which reported the riot the following day is an amazing insight into the period. The day’s news is dominated by Montenegro’s bombardment of the Albanian city of Shkodër and other Balkan conflicts while elsewhere whole pages are dedicated to military manoeuvres of the Great Powers and the comings and goings of the crowned heads of Europe. There’s an extensive obituary for J. P. Morgan, a conference on women’s voting rights is announced, as is the establishment of a “German-Catholic conservative party for Austria”, all of this sharing space with ads for the Secession’s spring exhibition, numerous sanatoria, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, freckle removal cream and the first Viennese performance of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.]
In Thunder at Twilight, Frederic Morton provides more context for Vienna’s widely differing responses to Schoenberg (here: Schönberg):
While in its carnival mood, the city tolerated such modernists as piquant harlequins. However, Schönberg’s second Musikverein appearance took place in the depths of Lent. In more sober air, Schönberg and Company neither titillated nor amused.
During Lent the very sound or sight of otherness had become taxing. Yet Vienna teemed with “other” people. The police blotter of the University Precinct suddenly filled up with incidents of beer steins flung in student kellers, usually at “individuals of Hebrew descent” whom the flingers accused of “staring”.
Despite the surly Lenten rejection of the mildly challenging Musikverein programme that night, the Second Viennese School had established itself as a dominant compositional force in the first half of the 20th century. Here, then, the piece which started the whole thing: