Slap concert

On March 31, 1913, a concert performance in Vienna ended with a riot and a famous slap.

Slap concert
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Consider the following orchestral piece, the third of Alban Berg’s Five Orchestral Songs after Postcards by Peter Altenberg:

This comes from the Second Viennese School, an early 20th century group of avant-garde composers. Their music is characterised by expressionist experiments in tone – the aural equivalent of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. The particular piece above is meant to evoke the feeling of being in love: passionate, confused, heartfelt, messy, yearning, and beautiful.

The second and third of the Five Orchestral Songs were first performed in Vienna in 1913, part of a full programme that included works by Berg, Anton Webern, and their teacher and mentor Arnold Schoenberg. They were going to perform some Mahler too, but the concert never got that far.

The audience, unused to this degree of experimentalism, started causing a fuss. Fans and supporters of Schoenberg fought back. A riot ensued, culminating in the concert organiser (Erhard Buschbeck) slapping a member of the audience in the face. He was sued for assault, and in the court a witness (Oscar Straus) testified that the slap was in fact the most pleasant and harmonious sound of the entire show. Sick burn dude.

Berg was so mortified at the reception of his work that it was never performed again in his lifetime; today he is recognised as one of the true innovators of 20th century orchestral music.

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