After last week’s ramblings on the topic of goal setting and accomplishing, I thought it high time that we discussed some good old fashioned cathartic rioting. I know the go-to example is usually the Rite of Spring premiere on May 29, 1913, but there was a concert only a few weeks earlier that makes that riot look like a harmless food fight. But still a really weird food fight, like that one in Hook with all the oddly colourful and unclassifiable food.
The concert I refer to was infamous enough that Austria gave it a unique moniker: Skandalkonzert. Roll that name around in your mouth. It feels right. It feels like it has a story. I’m not even formatting it in bold-type; my computer just does that when I type out Skandalkonzert. Conducted by expressionist composer, leader of the Second Viennese School of Music, and self-proclaimed musical bogey-man Arnold Schoenberg, the Skandalkonzert took place on March 31, 1913 in Vienna. But let’s go back a few weeks earlier. On February 23 of that year, Schoenberg premiered his work Gurrelieder, which was, much to his surprise, an overwhelming success. If you’re unfamiliar with the Second Viennese School of Music, just think of any Looney Tunes cartoon that makes fun of contemporary classical music. It sounds like that. For some time, Schoenberg found the conservative musical attitudes of Vienna offensive (read: no one liked his previous stuff) and so refused to accept any applause at the concert. For example, one such hated work of Schoenberg’s was Pierrot Lunaire and for some reason the music and subject matter, an insane clown, usually led to small-scale violence that ended performances. It is one of his most celebrated and well-known works today. While one can only guess at his motivations, I like to think Schoenberg went into the Skandalkonzert riding this previous success with an attitude of “I’ll show ‘em how to appreciate music, daggummit.”
They couldn’t just have a concert full of contemporary music, though. They needed something to draw the crowds. The hall held about 2,000 people, after all. Certainly the success of Gurrelieder would have many flocking to see Schoenberg conduct one of his own works, but the program also included Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, a very popular series of songs about children dying. A real crowd pleaser. (Seriously, that is not sarcasm. Child-death is cool but insane clowns aren’t; I do not understand the Viennese of the 1910s.) To people of the time, this would be like advertising the Beatles, then having the first 2/3 of their show opened by Nickelback.Needless to say, the program backfired but it worked; the hall was packed for the performance. The Mahler was preceded by four other works: Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, Zemlinsky’s Four Orchestral Songs, and Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1. These three only served to rile the audience up; the powder keg was Alban Berg’s Five Orchestral Songs on Picture-Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg. For context, Berg’s songs were and would continue to be the source of much blood-loss: there were numerous reports of stabbings during performances of his songs.
While Schoenberg conducted Berg’s songs at Skandalkonzert, groups in the crowd shouted for Berg to go and join Peter Altenberg. Written like that it seems pretty harmless. Except the place they told Berg to join Altenberg was the State Mental Institution at Steinhof on the outskirts of the city. From my understanding, the things shouted at Berg then would have you charged with slander today. At the very least it would be horrifically un-PC and you would be socially ostracized. The supporters of the Second Viennese School contented themselves with a third option: cracking some skulls. In the time it had taken to play two of Berg’s songs, fights had broken out, blood had been spilled, furniture smashed, the police were called, and the entire thing was shut down. Berg, while not in attendance that evening (likely for his own protection), was traumatized enough by the scandal that he withdrew his song cycle from publication and didn’t have it printed again until 1953, a full forty years later.
Considering the violence reported that evening and the rather dramatic titling of Skandalkonzert (I just wanted another excuse to write it down), it was strange that only one man was arrested: concert organizer and friend of Berg, Erhard Bushbeck. He was caught red-handed punching composer Oscar Straus in the face (though his hand was not literally red with blood). At the trial, Straus testified that the thud of Bushbeck’s fist hitting his skull was the only harmonious sound in the show. This may go down as the sickest burn ever to be admitted as witness testimony.