7 Most controversial pieces of classical music

Rosie Pentreath

They may hail from different eras and diverse parts of the world, but all these pieces have one thing in common: they have all turned heads in the classical music establishment. From explosive premieres to outrageous subjects, here are seven of music’s most controversial offerings.

Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring was famously greeted with a riot when it premiered at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1913. A Ballets Russes ballet as controversial for its subject matter (a sacrificial pagan ritual in which a virgin dances herself to death, described by one critic as “puerile barbarity”) and Nijinsky’s forceful choreography as it was for Stravinsky’s "savage" music, it seems The Rite’s premiere was destined for chaos.


Igor Stravinsky. Image via Styriarte 

When interviewed about performing in the premiere, dancer Lydia Sokolova said the audience indeed “had got themselves all ready. They didn't even let the music be played for the overture and as soon as it was known that the conductor was there, the uproar began.”

 

 

John Cage’s 4’33”

Would you call four minutes and 33 seconds of "silence" music? John Cage did when he "composed" 4’33” in 1952. A conceptual work in “three movements” that requires the performer of any instrument to sit in silence for four minutes and 33 seconds, it's all about exploring the ambient—or “other”—sounds heard in a musical performance, and takes Cage’s notion that all sounds can constitute music to the very limits.


The score to 4'33". Image via Smithsonianmag

It’s a notion that no doubt divides music lovers today as much as when the piece was first, um, heard…

 

 

Richard Strauss’s Salome


Soprano Mary Garden as Salome. Image via Parterre 

Take one of the Bible’s more lurid tales, mix in the decadent prose of Oscar Wilde, add dissonant music that follows few rules and, voilà, you have the perfect recipe for classical music controversy.

Strauss’s Salome (1893) sets Wilde’s psychosexual drama documenting Herod’s lust for his own stepdaughter in a terse score that scraps the traditional notion of using an "Overture" to ease an audience in while not bothering to inject much calm between tense movements either.

It's hard to know whether it is this or the moment Salome scandalously seduces her stepfather in Strauss’s disturbing "Dance Of The Seven Veils" that saw the opera banned in Vienna until 1918.

 

 

Mark Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole


Image via unusualattractions 

An opera about a glamour model was always going to raise a few eyebrows and when it's written about one recently deceased you complicate things further. Mark Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole upset music lovers who felt the life of a Playboy model-turned-reality TV star was not fit material for opera, (darling).

That was before family and fans of Nicole’s jumped on Turnage for making “cruel” depictions of the model’s life and failing to seek permission from her estate to stage the opera at London’s Royal Opera House in 2011.

Turnage hit back at criticism, going on record to say, “We haven't been cruel about people. Of course it's a tragic story but there's all different points of view put forward in the opera. The thing is, everybody is speculating about the content before they have seen it.” Reviews have been mixed ever since.

 

 

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”

From populist to political subject matter now, and it’s easy to forget that Beethoven’s monumental third symphony wasn’t without its controversies when it was composed. The issue lay in the attribution. Legend has it Beethoven originally intended to honour Napoleon Bonaparte, but upon Napoleon’s being crowned emperor he scrapped the name in favour of the more abstract, "Eroica" meaning "heroic".


Image via comicvine 

According to Beethoven biographer Ferdinand Ries, the composer flew into a rage, declaring Bonaparte a “tyrant” who “will think himself superior to all men.”

 

 

Erik Satie’s Parade

Parade was a joint project of composer Erik Satie, artist Pablo Picasso and writer Jean Cocteau and its 1917 premiere attracted controversy for sheer cacophony. The audience wasn’t impressed when "noise-making objects" such as typewriters, clanking bottles—even a foghorn—had the audacity to step in for actual musical instruments.


Erik Satie. Image via Vanguardia 

When prolific reviewer of the time Jean Poueigh gave the piece a bad write up, Satie responded by saying, “You are not only an arse, but an arse without music.” Fast forward a few months and Satie and Cocteau find themselves in court and, for Satie, facing eight days in prison.

 

 

John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer

John Adams’ 1991 opera telling of the real life tragedy of the disabled elderly Leon Klinghoffer being murdered at the hands of vigilante terrorists has been accused of anti-semitism since it was premiered in 1991.

Klinghoffer was Jewish and his daughters describe the libretto as “appalling” and “anti-semitic”, going on record when the opera was staged by ENO in 2012 to say: “What we find most offensive is our feeling that the opera attempts to rationalise the murder of our father by presenting the hijackers as poetic and romantic valiant freedom fighters, when they were nothing more than terrorist thugs.”


Leon Klinghoffer. Image via wrti

Lots of Jewish groups and art appreciators have spoken up against the opera and protesters turned up in droves when Klinghoffer was performed by the Met in 2014.

 

Feature image via blog.naver 

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