Heyser: Hissy Fit for Orchestra and Chorus


SCHOENBERG’S TWELVE-TONE system has dominated orchestral music far too long,” Heyser wrote in his autobiography, Why I Am a Genius (And You Are Not). “I saw no reason why the number of tones in a so-called ‘octave’ should be limited to twelve. Such archaic dogmatism is anathema to the spirit of intellectual experimentation that informs all music worth composing, if not necessarily worth hearing. It seemed to me that divisions into prime numbers, as least likely to result in what the ignorant consumers of popular ballads would identify as ‘music,’ must make the most proper and satisfactory method for serious composition.”

The principle so eloquently articulated by Heyser is well displayed in this, his most famous composition. Hissy Fit is in five movements, all of them marked Allegro agitato con carne.

The first states the main theme of the work, which begins in the double basses (playing an eleven-tone scale) and is picked up by the woodwinds (transformed into a thirteen-tone scale). Pizzicato violas (playing in a seventeen-tone scale) pick up the theme and invert it, and the violins (playing a nineteen-tone scale) reverse it and tie it in a Windsor knot.

For the second movement, the musicians pick up the score of the first movement and turn it upside-down.

The third movement begins with a bold statement of a new theme from the French horns. This is but a ruse, however, as the rest of the movement is note-for-note identical to the first movement.

The fourth movement is improvised by the clarinets playing mouthpieces only.

The fifth movement combines all the elements from the first four movements, but now set to a twenty-three-tone scale. At the end of the movement, the chorus begins to realize that it has been shut out of the composition entirely, and the “hissy fit” of the title ensues. This lasts until the police arrive, at which time the audience, if there is one, is interrogated for several hours.

The first performance, in 1988, was conducted by the composer, and resulted in suspended sentences for several dozen musicians and singers. Tonight’s twentieth-anniversary performance is underwritten in part by the Society for the Preservation of Architectural Landmarks, who are under the impression that their money is being spent on asbestos removal.



  1. nic says:

    Perfect. The most pronounced eruption of mirth in the office for some days. Thank you.

  2. Somewhat reminiscent of this true story:

    [Scene: A concert of Futurist Luigi Russolo’s Network of Noises suite, in Milan Italy, 21 April 1914. The “orchestra”:]

    3 bumblers 2 exploders 2 gurglers
    3 thunderers 3 whistlers 2 rufflers
    1 fracasseur 2 stridors 1 snorer

    There was an enormous crowd. Boxes, the orchestra and balcony seats were filled to capacity. A deafening uproar of “passéistes” greeted us. They arrived with the express purpose of interrupting the concert at all costs. For an hour, the Futurists offered passive resistance.

    But an extraordinary thing happened just at the start of Network of Noise No. 4: five Futurists–Boccioni, Carra, Amando, Mazza, Piatti and myself–descended from the stage, crossed the orchestra pit, and, right
    in the center of the hall, using their fists and canes, attacked the “passéistes,” who appeared to be stultified and intoxicated with reactionary rage. The battle lasted fully half an hour. During all this time Luigi Russolo continued to conduct imperturbably the nineteen bruiteurs on the stage. It was a display of an amazing harmonic arrangement of bloody faces and dissonances, an infernal melee. Our previous battles took place in the streets or backstage after the
    performance. For the first time on this occasion the performing artists were suddenly divided into two groups: one group continued to play, while the other went down into the hall to combat the hostile and
    rioting audience. It is thus that an escort in the desert protects the caravan against the Touaregs. It is thus that the infantry sharpshooters provide cover for the construction of a military pontoon. Our skill in boxing and our fighting spirit enabled us to emerge from the skirmish with but a few bruises. But the “passéistes” suffered eleven wounded, who had to be taken to a first-aid station for treatment.

    — F. T. Martinelli, _L’Intransigeant_, Paris, 29 April 1914, quoted in _Nicolas Slonimsky: The First Hundred Years_, 1994

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