In the world of classical music, not all compositions have been well-received at first. Some works, despite their eventual popularity, faced disastrous premieres, leaving composers disheartened and discouraged. A few of these “flops” made a turnaround, managing to rise above their original failures to become timeless masterpieces that continue to delight audiences. The following ten classical works experienced disappointing beginnings, but ultimately triumphed, proving that perseverance and patience can lead to success.

1. Rossini’s The Barber of Seville : A Rival’s Sabatoge

Gioachino Rossini‘s opera The Barber of Seville is a widely celebrated work today, but its debut in Rome in 1816 was anything but triumphant. Rossini’s rival, Paisiello, had composed an opera with the same title and storyline, and he was deeply threatened by Rossini’s version. Determined to see his competitor’s work fail, Paisiello attended the premiere with a group of supporters, leading a chorus of jeers and catcalls that disrupted the performance. Despite this disastrous debut, Rossini’s opera became a beloved classic, while Paisiello’s version faded into obscurity.

2. Wagner’s Tannhäuser: An Unfortunate Change of Plans

Richard Wagner‘s opera Tannhäuser faced a challenging premiere in 1861, largely due to the composer’s decision to include a ballet scene in the first act rather than the customary second act. This change upset the members of the Parisian Jockey Club, who attended the opera solely for the ballet and arrived fashionably late. Outraged by Wagner’s unconventional choice, the Jockey Club members protested with catcalls and whistles throughout the performance, turning the premiere into a disaster.

3. Bizet’s Carmen: A Shocking Storyline

Georges Bizet‘s Carmen is now a renowned opera, but its 1875 premiere at the Opera-Comique in Paris left audiences aghast. The storyline, which revolves around a free-spirited and morally ambiguous woman, was considered scandalous at the time. The premiere received little to no reaction from the shocked audience, and the subsequent reviews ranged from disappointment to horror. However, after Bizet’s untimely death, interest in Carmen was rekindled, and the opera went on to become a worldwide sensation.

4. Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor: A Lack of Preparation

Edward Elgar‘s Cello Concerto in E Minor faced a tumultuous debut, largely due to inadequate rehearsal time and the interference of the other conductor, Albert Coates. Elgar’s wife was particularly critical of Coates, calling him a “brutal, selfish, ill-mannered bounder.” The lack of practice time and the chaotic atmosphere of the premiere led to a disastrous performance, with one reviewer bemoaning that the orchestra had made a “lamentable exhibition” of itself.

5. Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3: A Composer’s Struggle

Anton Bruckner experienced a host of setbacks before the premiere of his Symphony No. 3. The perfectionist composer struggled to complete the work, and the initial conductor’s death led to a rescheduled performance. Bruckner himself was ultimately forced to conduct the premiere, despite his lack of experience in this role. To make matters worse, the members of the Vienna Philharmonic made it clear they disliked the piece, leading to a disastrous performance that left Bruckner devastated. However, the composer eventually revised the symphony, and the new version received widespread acclaim.

6. Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 in D Minor: A Heartbreaking Premiere

Symphony No. 1 in D Minor had a premiere that Rachmaninoff described as “the most agonizing hour of my life.” The under-rehearsed orchestra, combined with a drunken conductor, led to a disastrous performance that left Rachmaninoff devastated. The scathing reviews, including one critic who compared the symphony to the plagues of Egypt, sent the composer into a deep depression.

7. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake: A Struggle with Innovation

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s ballet Swan Lake faced a challenging debut, as the dancers struggled to adapt to the composer’s innovative score. Rumors of the dancers’ difficulties spread, and easier pieces were inserted into the performance to compensate. The press was unimpressed by the premiere, and by the time the ballet was removed from the repertoire, one-third of Tchaikovsky’s original score had been replaced. Despite this rocky start, Swan Lake eventually became one of the most beloved ballets in history.

8. Verdi’s La Traviata: An Ill-Fated Premiere

Giuseppe Verdi‘s opera La traviata experienced a disastrous premiere in Venice in 1853. The audience found the casting of an older, larger soprano in the role of the young Violetta to be inappropriate, leading to boos and jeers. The other performers were also criticized for their subpar performances. In spite of the initial disappointment, La traviata went on to become a celebrated opera and a staple of the repertoire.

9. Bellini’s Norma: A Silent Disapproval

Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma faced a unique challenge during its premiere. The lack of applause, boos, or any other reaction from the audience left Bellini devastated. The composer searched for reasons for the audience’s disapproval, considering the singers’ fatigue and the possibility of rival composers sabotaging the premiere. However, Norma would go on to become one of Bellini’s most enduring works.

10. Bernstein’s Candide: A Question of Balance

Leonard Bernstein‘s operetta Candide had a difficult debut on Broadway, with critics finding the libretto by playwright Lillian Hellman too serious for the production. The premiere was a flop, running for only two months. In time, subsequent producers recognized the potential of the work, and with revisions, Candide eventually found success and acclaim.

Even the most talented composers can face disappointment and failure. These stories serve as a testament to the power of resilience and the enduring appeal of great music.

Feeling generous? 😊