Jeux (Games) is the last work for orchestra written by Claude Debussy. Illustration: Geoffrey Arundel Whitworth
Another creation by Nijinsky and Diaghilev, this time set in a tennis court, and, thus, dubbed a “tennis ballet” or “Nijinsky’s Bloomsbury Ballet”, with Debussy’s orchestral work by the same name serving as a score. It features one man and two women wearing tennis clothes who find themselves chasing a ball in a clearing, and, upon embarking on this task, they engage in a three-way flirtation. As another ball flies in, they runoff. Jeux blends traditional ballet steps with sport maneuvers and is believed to have ushered in the neo-classical ballet of the twentieth century. In his own diaries, Nijinsky states that casting one man and two women was away, for Diaghilev, to express his desire to make love to two men avoiding all kinds of censorship.
Alban Berg, Altenberg Lieder at the Skandalkonzert
The Skandalkonzert of March 31, 1913, was a concert of the Wiener Konzertverein (Vienna Concert Society) conducted by Arnold Schoenberg in the Great Hall of the Musikverein.
Classical music cognoscenti remember the date March 31.1913 as the evening of the Skandalkonzert. The program featured music by Weber, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Schoenberg and Alban Berg, whose Altenberg Lieder had poet Peter Altenberg’s words set to music. He was a family friend of his and his wife’s. Schoenberg had heard some Altenberg lieder prior to the Skandalkonzert and he reacted by saying “they bother me”. They were originally “epigrammatic…scurrilous poems in blank verse” and, in setting them to music, Berg used whole-tone scales, chromaticism and the 12-tone system of pitch organization.
Well, upon hearing the Altenberg lieder, the audience erupted in a riot, which called for an early end of the performance and which caused Berg to retire his work, which was not performed in full until 1952
Igor Stravinsky, Rite of Spring
The Rite of Spring at Théâtre des Champs Élysées
During a late spring night of 1913, the audience that was crammed in the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées would listen to what would later be called the most relevant composition of the twentieth century. Hired by Diaghilev from the Ballets Russes for their 1913 season, composer Igor Stravinsky had come up with what he summarized as “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”, featuring primitive rituals celebrating spring and ending with a sacrificial dance, where a young maiden dances herself to death. The famous opening melody consists of a Lithuanian folk song played at the top of the bassoon’s register, which makes it sound like a completely different instrument. Instead of graceful sequences, Nijinsky had made his dancers perform a sequence of stomping steps. The audience’s discontent kept growing from “derisive laughter to what Stravinsky described it as a “terrific uproar”, and two factions of the audience first attacked each other, then they directed their barbs to the orchestra. To this day, we don’t know if the audience was genuinely disgusted or if they were mainly traditionalists who preemptively decided that the performance would be bad because it was progressive. Diaghilev might have had a part in encouraging a scan
Ludwig van Beethoven, the Eroica (aka the Controversy that almost was)
Beethoven Eroica manuscript title page with Napoleon scratched out
Even though Beethoven’s third is a disruptive work in that no symphony composed prior to it had such complexity and contrasting tones, its controversy stems from the fact that it was originally titled “the Bonaparte”, as Beethoven had envisioned the work as a tribute to a heroic ruler who would inspire Europe to become a humanist, libertarian and egalitarian society.
We clearly see that the huge first movement musically narrates the “hero’s” struggle, while the second slow movement–actually a funeral march–deals with his death mourned in grand, public style. The Scherzo and the finale celebrate the hero’s legacy. When Beethoven got word from Ferdinand Ries that Napoleon had proclaimed himself Emperor, he reportedly defaced the dedication. Just imagine the heap of analytical studies had Beethoven maintained the original dedication.