Celebrating 100 years of Stravinsky′s ′Rite of Spring′ | Music | DW | 31.05.2013
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Celebrating 100 years of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring'

On May 29, 1913, an unbelievable commotion filled the Theater du Champs-Elysees in Paris. The audience very nearly rioted during the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's now classic ballet "The Rite of Spring."

Audiences fell in love with works commissioned by the traveling ballet company Ballets Russes from composer Igor Stravinsky. But the Paris premiere of "Le Sacre du Printemps" (The Rite of Spring) on May 29, 1913, has gone down as one of the greatest scandals in music history.

People loved to be seen in the Theatre du Champs-Elysees: The women decked out in their finest evening wear, the men in white tie. But the audience had been warned ahead of the late May premiere.

Ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev (c) picture-alliance/dpa

No stranger to scandal: Sergei Diaghilev

Ballets Russes' impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, invited the Parisian press to a dress rehearsal the day beforehand. He was known as a representative of the avant-garde, always ready to enter new artistic territory. The best composers of the age - and particularly Ivor Stravinsky - wrote for him.

There where whispers that outrageous things awaited audiences, and the scandal-prone dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky did his part to spread the rumors.

Provocation was nothing unusual at the time. Nonetheless, Parisian audiences still by and large insisted on their right to an undisturbed and pleasant experience of art in theaters. For the controversial premiere, they made sure to bring along whistles and an adversarial temperament.

Dance massacre

"Le Sacre du Printemps" - "The Spring Sacrifice" - was the title of the work by Stravinsky to be debuted.

Composer Igor Stravinsky (c) picture-alliance/akg images

Igor Stravinsky made a quick exit at the ballet's premiere

"When I wrote the final pages of 'The Firebird' in St. Petersburg, I was overcome by the vision of an immense pagan celebration," the composer said of the plot of "Le Sacre du Printemps." 

"Old wise men sit in a circle and watch the death dance of a young girl intended to be sacrificed in an appeal to the god of spring for mercy. That was the idea," he added.

Early on during the premiere, Stravinsky stood up from his seat and left:

"I exited the auditorium when laughter and snide calls began sounding out during the very first bars of the prelude. I was outraged. The shouts - at first coming from just a few individuals - soon spread. People began calling out in response, and it quickly resulted in a horrible commotion!"

Orgy of rhythm

An ancient pagan cult, a bloody ritual sacrifice: With the representation of a spring rite in pre-Christian Russia, Stravinsky was putting an act of violence on stage. And the music presented the action on stage with a degree of brutality considered shocking at the time.

Tonally and melodically, it was incomprehensible, placing the emphasis above all else on the rhythm. A half-hour work for an enormous orchestra with such an orgy of rhythm must have left audiences of the time speechless.

The brusque musical motor drew nude dancers onto the stage, insinuating various rituals. There were no classical dance steps, no affectionate pas de deux. Instead, the dancers moved hectically and twitched - overcome alternately by lust and aggression.

Dancers from Le Sacre du Printemps by Igor Stravinsky in Paris 1913 (c) ullstein bild - Roger-Viollet

"Le Sacre du Printemps" by Igor Stravinsky, Paris 1913

Stravinsky had imagined large-scale movements performed by groups in an effort to emphasize the archaic and impersonal aspects of the narrative. But Nijinsky stood on a chair to the side of the stage and shouted commands - above the din in the auditorium - to the dancers that involved highly complicated steps.

"It's exactly what I wanted!" was Sergei Diaghilev's comment following the evening's scandalous premiere. After all, a scandal did not mean failure, but publicity, and the success - or at least notoriety - that attention often breeds.

Some critics complained about the audience's intolerance toward contemporary art. Others described it as a healthy expression of popular sentiment that offered a defense against the juggernaut of "cacophonous, modern music."

In the end, new money from patrons came rolling in.

Gateway to the future

Dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsk +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Dancer Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed the 1913 premiere

One eyewitness - the author, director and painter Jean Cocteau - came to the conclusion that the music was not solely responsible for the uproar that ensued. Instead, he blamed the segment of the audience that had only come on account of the sensation.

"Dilettantes and those of fragile sensibilities thought back then that they had to stay in step with the fashions of the age," Cocteau said.

"Along the way, a class came to light that was situated between the plain and well-mannered taste that actually fit with it, and the new commandments that were beyond the scope of that taste. It was a provincialism even worse than in the province - and that right in the heart of Paris."

Stravinsky's ballet hit Paris like a bomb on May 29, 1913 - but it had a libratory effect. Everything was possible. With one jolt, the gateway to the future of music was broken wide open.

The tumult that accompanied the premiere of "Le Sacre du Printemps" remained a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, and it made Stravinsky more famous.

Rendering the ballet's choreography remained a challenge. But just a year after its premiere, Stravinsky's coup passed into the hands of a number of brilliant orchestras and conductors. It has continued its march of victory into the present day in concert halls around the world.

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