A Riot of a Time: History’s Most Notorious Premiere?

Tuning Up

The Rite of Spring was the Big Bang out of which 20th-century avant-garde culture emerged. Just like its astrophysical namesake, Stravinsky’s Big Bang didn’t come from nowhere. It followed a period of rising tensions and opposing ideologies; left vs. right, old vs. young, radicalism vs. the so-called bourgeoisie.

By its premiere with the Ballet Russes in Paris in 1913, Stravinsky had already formed a well-established alliance with the group’s impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and the experimental choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky. Between them, they brought to life visions of provincial Russia; the dazzling folklore of The Firebird and Petrushka tapping into a fashion for the ‘primitive’.

Nicholas Roerich’s folk-inspired costumes. Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra de Paris

Diaghilev subverted a colonial fascination with ‘the orient’ that had shaped everything from fashion to food for almost two centuries. But Russia was not considered en vogue by allNijinsky’s knock-kneed, ungainly vision of pagan Russia was a far cry from the elegance and glamour of the City of Lights. Ever the showman, Diaghilev provoked his fashionable audience, offering ‘a generous distribution’ of free tickets to his core supporters, conveniently placed in the centre of the theatre. They were completely surrounded by the opposing faction. The stage was set for a riot…

The Music

…Or so the story goes. While the myth of the ‘Riot’ of Spring may have been embellished, the premiere was no less of a succès de scandale. ‘The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect,’ wrote one infuriated critic. Harsh, loud and dissonant, the notoriously fiendish rhythms invoke the fever of the ghoulish ritual, where a young girl dances herself to death, sacrificed to the god of spring. Reports of young men ‘thumping’ the rhythm onto the heads of aristocrats were apparently one of the more reliable eyewitness accounts.

Another was Nijinsky’s heavy, awkward choreography, which deliberately rejected the grace and movement of classical ballet. The audience complained so loudly that the dancers could no longer hear the orchestra. So, Nijinsky himself ran out on stage with a stick, furiously beating time.

For musicians, performing Stravinsky is a little like Marmite. But love or hate him, in the Rite, Stravinsky allows us to do both (!) at the same time (!) with movements like ‘Ritual of the Rival Tribes’ demanding the orchestra play in two speeds at once (!!). 

Roerich’s set design for the ritual circle.

Coda

T.S. Eliot remarked that Stravinsky’s music transformed the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn … and the other barbaric cries of modern life, and to transform these despairing noises into music’. 

The Rite is less the shock of the new, but the uncomfortable presence of an older, more violent part of human nature that was once again reawakened in the turbulent early years of the 20th-century. For the bourgeoisie, it was the fear of anarchism, that seemed to be awakened by the brutality of the Rite. 

‘There are simply no regions for soul-searching in The Rite of Spring’ said Stravinsky. Perhaps this rejection of humanity, as mankind entered the machine age, is what makes Stravinsky’s work such an unsettling and fascinating precursor of what was to come.

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