Before Dylan blew up Newport with his electric guitar, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky blew up a Paris theatre with “The Rite of Spring,” one of the most polarizing and influential ballets of the 20th century. It’s also one of the first instances of a popular musical piece causing an immediate and polarizing response, both emotional and physical.
Now universally acclaimed, Stravinsky’s ballet, which premiered on May 29, 1913, at Paris’s Theatre des Champs-Elysees, was met with strong criticism and an actual riot that took place within the crowd while the performance was still going on. Critics were sharply divided between praising and scorning the young composer for the same reason; Stravinsky created such a twisted and challenging piece of music that was unlike anything else. At the time, you could only call it innovative or barbaric.
Igor Stravinsky was a Russian composer who studied under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a well-known composer who inspired young Stravinsky to incorporate Russian folklore and nationalism into his music. Stravinsky was always interested in testing the limits of what classical music could do both musically and within its social context – could music be more than just a passive leisure, and could it actually challenge and trigger the audience? – but Rimsky-Korsakov inspired him to also try to make Russian music for Russian people (ironically, the play was at first only played throughout Europe).
Stravinsky had already achieved fame with his first two ballets, “The Firebird” (1910) and “Petrushka” (1911), when Serge Diaghilev, director of the groundbreaking Paris ballet company Ballets Russes, approached him to collaborate on a new piece. The actual choreography was done by Vaslav Nijinsky, the male lead of Ballets Russes and one of the greatest male ballet dancers of the 20th century. From the very start, the intent was to create something that no one had ever heard, though it’s not sure if these three men knew exactly how polarizing their new piece would be.
The ballet is Stravinsky’s recreation of a pagan Russian tribe celebrating springtime, which includes violent dancing and climaxes with the sacrifice of a young girl who literally dances herself to death.
The ballet begins with a lone bassoon playing a simple and pleasant melody that evokes the serenity of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” which was what the audience in the packed theatre was probably expecting. Though it’s unusual for a bassoon to play in such a high register, the music itself is unassuming until it is gradually joined by other woodwinds and strings that slowly build tension from clashing with each other with dissonant notes and nervous rhythms that anticipate something wicked.
The curtain comes up and an old woman, fully dressed in a bizarre costume and whose face is covered in a tribe-like paint, foretells the future of Spring to a group of young girls also dressed in long rags and warpaint looking nothing like the flattering and revealing tutus of classical ballerinas. The young girls quickly jump up and down and stomp onto the ground in time with a repeated blast of strings and horns while aimlessly wailing their arms in sudden spurts. The young girls then perform the “Dance of the Abduction” and the “Spring Rounds,” in which the girls separate in different packs and move as units to and from each other in a sort of confrontational style. The orchestra moves between swift and sluggish, but the music always retains its dissonance and always seems on the verge of resolving yet never does, just like the young girls continually dancing whom can’t seem to stop.
But then the dancing does stop, and an old Sage enters to bless the earth and to join everyone in dance. This is the end of the adoration of the earth. It’s time for the sacrifice. A young girl is selected by fate and his honored as the “Chosen One” who then begins the long and violent ceremony of dancing herself to death in honor of her tribe and of the earth.
The music, so dark for its time, is strange on its own, but it’s the actual visualization of the music that makes this piece so vibrant (or horrifying). There’s nothing pretty about this dancing. The ballet dancers, rather than dressing in tutus showing off their elegant and nimble bodies, are fully dressed in bizarre costumes and face paint. The rhythmic accent of both the dancers and the instruments are intended to portray a very primitive and stark feel, much like the tribes which this ballet is depicting. Quite the contrast from the happy-go-lucky Mozart or the sweet and elegant Beethoven.
So how did the crowd react? Below is a BBC recreation of what the crowd was experiencing during the show.
From this video, you can hear jeering and hissing from all parts of the theatre (According to Amar Toor of The Verge, the dancers could not hear the orchestra over the crowd’s jeering, so Nijinsky had to shout out his commands from backstage). There were fist fights and violent confrontations, yet the performance continued to its end even among the chaos within the theatre.
The music itself was shocking, but the actual cause of the riots might have been the result of a long-building tension. This was Stravinsky’s supposed Russian Nationalist piece, yet this was during the chaotic years that would build up and finally explode into the Russian Revolution four years later. This was also right after the turn of the century, which was marked by many advancements in technology and art. This was the time of Picasso, Freud, Einstein, and a general sense of change and innovation. In art specifically, several different “isms” were beginning to form and clash, including Impressionism, Primitivism, and Expressionism. In a way, “The Rite of Spring” is a mixture of all these different “isms,” a sum of several different parts. With all this change, people were ready for the next stage in art and performance. “The Rite of Spring” also hinted at the kind of twisted future that music would confront, as one year after its premiere Archduke Franz Ferdinand would be assassinated and the world would deal with death on a global scale never seen before.
Stravinsky, and “The Rite of Spring” specifically, is now credited for ushering in modernism in classical music, which gave us Philip Glass, John Cage, and others who would further challenge our expectations of music.
Whereas Bob Dylan was seen as pissing on his fans who hated rock ‘n’ roll, Stravinsky was genuinely shocking his audience with music that sounded like nothing else before. It was a loud rejection of the traditional forms of classical music and it inspired musicians of all genres to break away from their forms and to push their boundaries.