Skandalkonzert: The Battle for Modernism
On the evening of the 31st of March 1913, the infamous Skandalkonzert at the Great Hall of the Vienna Musikverein took place. Despite the bad press that followed, the event has entered public consciousness as a major breakthrough into the era of modernism in classical music. What could be more symbolic than a riot erupting between the audience and the musicians as a reaction to the dissonances and atonality of modern masterpieces? Even though rather distressing for the composers, the riot, set within the context of expressionist musical variations, provides a rather illustrative commentary on the transgression of not only musical, but to a certain extent, social boundaries too. Siglind Bruhn stated that, “Modernism is a testing of the limits of aesthetic construction.” (Encrypted Messages in Alban Berg’s Music). However, one should not disregard that modernism, through the initiation of the new aesthetics, tested, above all, the limits of social mentality. That it should have manifested itself in such a violent manner suggests only that the Viennese audience were either not mentally prepared for this aesthetic transgression just yet, or that Modernism was a very powerful cultural force indeed.
The program of the concert, conducted by Arnold Schoenberg (the leader of the Second Viennese School), included works by Anton von Webern, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Alban Berg, Gustav Mahler and Schoenberg himself. The riot started “as Arnold Schoenberg conducted two of Berg’s songs Op. 4, the Fünf Orchesterlieder nach Ansichtskartentexten von Peter Altenberg [Five Orchestral Songs on Picture-Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg]. The audience bawled for composer and poet [Peter Altenberg] to be sent to the madhouse, knowing full well that Altenberg was already a patient in the State Mental Institution at Steinhof on the outskirts of the city. Fights broke out, the police were called, and Erhard Buschbeck, a friend of Berg’s and an organiser of the concert, was arrested after trading blows with the operetta composer Oscar Straus. At the trial, Straus remarked that the thud of the punch had been the most harmonious thing in the whole concert.” (Anthony Pople, The Cambridge Companion to Berg). Skandalkonzert was not a singular occurrence as far as violent reactions to modern expressionist music were concerned. In fact, “there were reports of stabbing during performances of Berg’s songs, and apparently it was rare to get through Schoenenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in Vienna without ‘violent disturbances’. Some found the negative reactions too much. Following the Skandalkonzert, Berg withdrew his song cycle Fünf Orchesterlieder nach Ansichtskarten-Texten von Peter Altenberg…; they were not published until 1953.” (Laura Tunbridge, The Song Cycle).
Further forms of artistic expression were met in Vienna with stronger or lesser aggression at the time. For example, the Austrian satirist and Altenberg’s close friend, Karl Kraus, was beaten up frequently for his critical, satirical drawings. “As early as 1897, fists replaced brains when Felix Salten, author of Bambi, boxed the satirist’s ears for suggesting that the Budapest-born Salten’s command of German grammar was less than perfect. In 1906 Kraus was knocked senseless by Marc Henry, conferencier of the ‘Cabaret Nachtlicht’ after Kraus had attacked him in his journal Die Fackel (The Torch). Other feuds remained at the level of deep personal antipathy, sometimes even amongst artists moving within the same restricted circles and sharing a similar aesthetic.” (Pople).
All these accounts construct a picture of the continuous battles existing between Viennese society and its artistic circles. However, apart from inherent exaggerations, they also depict the vastness of the void between nineteenth-century mentality and the shocking, incomprehensive, modernist rhetoric at the beginning of the twentieth century. Even such artistically and literary inclined minds as Altenberg found it difficult to adjust to modernism in music. He said: “I understand nothing of this latest ‘modern music’, my brain-soul still hears, feels, understands only Richard Wagner, Hugo Wolf, Brahms, Dvořák, Grieg, Puccini, Richard Strauss!” (Pople). But no matter how lengthy the process of cultural and mental adjustment was, and how much ‘blood was shed’ during the process. The positive aspect of it is that the much criticised avant garde were eventually vindicated.
Credit: Thomas Ligre