31 May 2013

The Other Riot

Recently Norman Lebrecht wrote an article on the Stravinsky "Rite riot" and whether it's possible to identify this or any event as the beginning of modernism in music.  For the record, I believe no single event can be pointed to as the beginning, but then I've always been skeptical of the notion of births and deaths when it comes to defining grand historical "eras," "periods," "ages" and such. Identifying the Rite as the birth of modernism in music makes about as much sense to me as identifying Monteverdi's infamous unprepared seventh as the birth of the baroque.  Still, sometimes a defining individual (as opposed to a defining single event) does appear who undergoes a period of extraordinary discovery and personal transformation in the midst of fertile times such as fin de siècle Europe – times when Ideas are "in the air," usually in ways that can't be ascribed to one cultural field or another, let alone to one event or another, no matter what event came first. I wrote a bit about this in my "annus mirabilis" entry in this blog.

In his article, Lebrecht correctly points to another incident, less famous nowadays than the Nijinsky-Stravinsky affair. It occurred in Vienna on December 21, 1908, four and a half years before the premier of the Rite in Paris. This was the first performance of Arnold Schoenberg's 2nd string quartet. Reproduced below is the title page from one of the 100 copies of the score that Schoenberg had produced at his own expense and a note enclosed in that copy. The "riot" at the premier and the subsequent self-publication of the score are described in this typewritten note Schoenberg wrote to his benefactor, Gerturde Clarke Whittall, in 1950.

It is tempting to disregard Schoenberg's claim ("At the first performance of this work, the greatest riot which ever occurred in a concert hall happened") as an inflated boast about the past and who had created the bigger first dent in the hegemonic Old World musical order, him or Stravinsky. By 1950, things seemed pretty settled for the two, like it or not, and there was no getting back in the ring. (Of course, Schoenberg was never to know that he would be given a posthumously awarded TKO (or at least a draw) in the final round as Stravinsky went serial.) But I believe Schoenberg's claim to Mrs. Whittall was justifiable – if you assume "[before]" was intended to be read after the word "occurred." The reader may bring his or her own prejudices to this suggestion. Whether or not the Rite affair or any since then created a bigger brouhaha, I don't know of any occurring before 1908 that would make Schoenberg's claim wrong.

In the end, to me, quibbles such as this over bragging rights for first, biggest, most significant or most age-defining riot only point to things that are of interest in sociology, anthropology or politics (and since it's all about the crowd, of course Kierkegaard, whose 200th birthday was recently nearly celebrated, would have had plenty to say here). But whether or not there were fisticuffs traded in Vienna in 1908 has little or nothing to do with the music. . .  Except that the disturbance kept those who were there to listen from hearing "Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten." There must be an irony here someplace.

The complete score to the 2nd Quartet self-published by Schoenberg can be found >here<. And the holograph manuscript is >here<.

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