Life, etc

Stravinsky’s pagan pageant masterpiece, 100 years later

By J Brooks Spector 30 May 2013

At the 29 May 1913 Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet score, The Rite of Spring, there were fistfights in the audience, some reports say attendees hit each other with chairs, and the loud howls and catcalls from those same patrons sometimes drowned out the music. A hundred years later, however, the work is acclaimed as a true masterwork central to the 20th century’s decisive break with 300 years of musical tradition and ideas. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

By the end of the 19th century, it seemed to almost everyone that composers like Anton Bruckner, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler had pushed Western symphonic music about as far as it was possible to do without disintegrating into pure noise. From that point forward, of course there would be new compositions from new composers, but there really were real rules that had to be attended to. And that was that.

And then, quite suddenly, an entirely new approach to Western music burst onto the scene. Composers like Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg, Claude Debussy, Alban Berg and Igor Stravinsky were pulling apart the accepted musical logic – and offering new ones in its place – 12-tone rows, atonal music, deliberately cultivated dissonances and other bewildering musical experiments. Schoenberg had already been right on the leading edge with his trailblazing works like Verklare Nacht and Pierrot Lunaire. By contrast, Stravinsky’s The Firebird had dabbled in this new wave, but it had stayed just barely within the rules. All of this was taking place in the heady years in Paris just as art, too, was breaking free of its conventions as Picasso and the rest were inventing cubism.

But The Rite of Spring, and its first night, would be a very different kind of event and it marked music’s dividing line between what had gone before – and everything else. The premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris was scandalous by almost any definition. There were truly outrageous costumes, unusual choreography and a vividly portrayed story of pagan sacrifice. And that was just what was happening on stage.

By the time he was composing The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky had already found his perfect collaborator in Serge Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes. The two Russian expatriates worked closely together for two decades, until Diaghilev died in 1929. Their first collaboration had been Les Sylphides, when Diaghilev asked several Russian composers, including Stravinsky, to orchestrate some of Frédéric Chopin’s compositions for piano. This first collaboration, however, did nothing to predict the 1913 maelstrom about to break. Still young, Stravinsky had already the attention of Paris – his previous year’s big work, Petrushka, had been a massive hit. “There is no question at all, he was a star,” says Stephen Walsh, music professor at Cardiff University. But compared to Stravinsky’s next work, Petrushka was not a forbidding score.

Perhaps the furore over The Rite was a result of the very innocuousness of the beginning of that first night’s programme – an evening that began with Les Sylphides. But when The Rite of Spring rolled over the audience, the fat was truly in the fire.

Even the dancers had problems with it. One of the dancers wrote later that Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography was sufficiently physically unnatural for them to perform that “with every leap we landed heavily enough to jar every organ in us.” And the music was harsh, dissonant – and just plain unpredictable.

Watch: Stravinsky – Rite of Spring “Opening”

Right from the first notes there were new, strange elements contained within it. Stravinsky wrote a part for the bassoon for the introduction that was to be played in a higher range than had ever been used before for that instrument. The result was it was virtually impossible for the audience to realise the bassoon was even being played.

Then, when the curtain actually went up and the dancing began, the musical theme was just a loud, pulsating, dissonant chord with those jarring, irregular but mesmerising accents, rather than any kind of recognisable tune audience members could hum on the way home. Pretty soon, the audience got into the spirit of the thing they were watching and hearing – they were hissing and hurling insults so loudly that reports about that first night say the performers could barely hear each other play.

Meanwhile, backstage, things were rapidly going pretty pear-shaped as well. The choreographer was screaming loudly at his dancers and Diaghilev himself decided to head off a riot among the audience members by turning the house lights on and off to distract the patrons from any possible violence. Meanwhile, Stravinsky was seen and heard visibly fuming at the audience’s response to his newest composition. But, if nothing else, the premiere instilled in the audience the true spirit of the music. As Harvard music professor Thomas Kelly wrote about that first night, “The pagans on-stage made pagans of the audience.”

A hundred years on, the riot over The Rite has acquired the kind of certainty that only a true legend can have. Everyone “knows” the premiere turned into a chair-throwing riot among defenders and denigrators of the work. But, was there really blood-curdling violence that night? Like any other Agatha Christie crime scene, witnesses offered rather different versions of the event. According to what some wrote, there were fisticuffs, people threw things at the stage and at least one person challenged another to a duel right in the theatre.

But Esteban Buch, director of studies at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Science in Paris, says while it is hard to deny “something really extraordinary” happened that night, he adds that as accounts were published in the months, years and decades that followed that night, “the riot” grows and grows in intensity and stature. Eventually it has taken on a mythic quality that, according to Buch, turned it into “some kind of gate to modernism, to the 20th century”.

In fact, there already were some murmurs afoot about what was going to happen on that opening night, when Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography for Claude Debussy’s new ballet, Jeux, premiered two weeks earlier. Critics had been abusive about Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography for that work. Now, it seemed, Nijinsky was at it again with Stravinsky’s new ballet, a work that would, rumours had it, be the final word on Russian primitivism or modernist chic, depending on what one wanted to see on stage.

Watch: Stravinsky- Rite of Spring “Sacrificial Dance”

Given that prelude, it seems likely at least part of the audience was already set to judge the work harshly, ready to rumble. Even Diaghilev was not entirely sure about this new work he was bringing to the stage. He is reported to have asked Stravinsky about his dissonant music, “Will it last a very long time this way?” – to which Stravinsky is said to have replied: “To the end, my dear.” Even if he really didn’t respond that way, it’s still a great line.

Stephen Walsh, professor of music at Cardiff University, says, “There was an existing tremor in the air against Nijinsky before any curtain went up.” And that was before the bassoonist started to torture his instrument. Stravinsky himself said later, that the uproar really began, “when the curtain opened on the group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down”.

Still, not even the police’s involvement in the evening is clear. One report says some 40 people were ultimately arrested, arguing for a fairly vigorous police contingent showing up at the ballet to enforce some artistic discipline. But another account says it was standard practice for at least some police to be present at Parisian theatres at the time. That says something about what people expected to find on stage, perhaps. Checking Paris prefectural archives to examine police records, Buch has discovered that the particular file that could have provided a definitive answer about the police and The Rite is, naturally, missing. Still, he has written there were probably only a few police on duty and that “they just witnessed the scene without doing much”.

But was what happened on that night in 1913 an explosion of class warfare between the swells and the artistically adventurous? According to some articles written at the time of the event, this new Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was literally “awash with diamonds and furs”. The glitterati apparently really did pitch for an event like this and some would almost certainly have been more (or much, much less) prepared to cheer on Stravinsky, Nijinsky and Diaghilev’s new, avant-garde work. Jean Cocteau wrote about the Parisian theatre that “the aesthetic crowd… would applaud novelty simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes”. But Buch retorts it is unlikely any of Paris’s poor – or even its middle class – were in attendance that night. He writes, “My reading of the evidence is that actually the divisions went inside social groups – you have people who are very much alike and they have different opinions on the piece.” Then as now, perhaps.

Ultimately, Buch argues that what really upset people was “the very notion of primitive society being shown on stage”. In full colour, with a raucous soundtrack to match. In fact, there is also evidence Diaghilev was hoping for trouble – then as now, scandal sells seats. In telling the press about this upcoming dance, Diaghilev said it would cause “impassioned debate”, clearly setting the scene for – or hoping to egg on – some real public controversy, Buch argues, if not a riot.

Whether the work was an initial success is also a somewhat vexed question. After the premiere, there were five more performances in Paris, then four in London. But then Nijinsky ran off with one of Diaghilev’s dancers – and Diaghilev and Nijinsky’s relationship never came back together. Still, for the work itself there were concert performances in Russia and Paris, revivals of the ballet in 1920 (with new choreography by Léonide Massine) and if the audiences for that revival season were noisy, at least there were ovations at the end. Even for these performances, however, some press reports say ovations played out against the noise of protesters.

Two decades after that, of all things, The Rite of Spring became controversial yet again – this time because of a cartoon. The Walt Disney film studio was searching for a vehicle to revive the fortunes of its core character, Mickey Mouse, and Disney and his team hit upon the idea of setting several pieces of well-known classical music – performed by a really good orchestra to show off new sound recording techniques for cartoons – against the studio’s superior animation.

The resulting film included, among other compositions, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony as a playground for centaurs and satyrs, Dukas’ The Sorcer’s Apprentice with Mickey as the main character – and The Rite of Spring as the soundtrack for the creation of the planets, the beginning of life on Earth up through the demise of the dinosaurs. The story goes that Disney wrapped up that segment before getting into the question of human evolution, fearing a boycott or worse from anti-evolution Bible-belt audiences. The resulting cartoon was not an extraordinary success upon its first release, but with subsequent re-releases, it finally won an audience, especially in the 1960s and 70s, once word got out that the film was enormously entertaining after a little chemical enhancement. Most recently, The Rite of Spring has featured in yet another film, this time around as breathtaking excerpts in Mao’s Last Dancer.

Judging its impact from the vantage point of a century after its premiere, The Guardian’s music critic, George Benjamin, says that The Rite of Spring, “Written on the eve of the first world war and the Russian revolution, the piece is the emblem of an era of great scientific, artistic and intellectual ferment. No composer since can avoid the shadow of this great icon of the 20th century, and score after score by modern masters would be unthinkable without its model. Since 1913 generation after generation of composers – from Varèse to Boulez, Bartók to Ligeti — has felt impelled to face the challenges set by this seminal masterwork. For many, rhythm – more than pitch – has propelled itself to the forefront of musical action due specifically to the Rite’s influence.”

Regardless of the initial audience responses to the work and any initial hesitations about it from the critics, The Rite of Spring is now firmly ensconced in contemporary orchestral and dance repertoires around the world. And it helped separate two musical ages – just as clearly as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque’s revolutionary works had ushered in the 20th century on canvas. DM

Read more:

  • Centennial Of First Performance Of ‘The Rite Of Spring’ To Be Marked With 24-Hour Radio Marathon at Forbes Magazine
  • Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” at National Public Radio
  • Did The Rite of Spring really spark a riot? At the BBC
  • The Rite of Spring celebrates 100 years at the Royal Opera House
  • How Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has shaped 100 years of music at the Guardian

Photo: The genius of Igor Stravinsky lives on.

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