On This Day (May 29)…The Rite and Riots of Spring

Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris on this day in 1913.

Igor Stravinsky had been contemplating creating a ballet about a character who danced herself to death since he was deep in the process of creating The Firebird. He was later commissioned to create this ballet by impresario Serge Diaghilev, for whom he had already created two successful ballets, and brought the image back. The resulting ballet, a tale of pagan tribes in Russia coming together to celebrate and sacrifice for the coming of spring, ended up as one of the most unique works thus far to grace stages. With his use of extreme dissonance and atypical rhythm structures, Stravinsky didn’t so much bend the rules of writing classical music as shatter them and proceed to stomp on their pieces; with this piece, he has retroactively been credited with ushering in the modernist age in music.

To pair with the very original score, Stravinsky’s ballet was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, employing atypical motions to contrast with the typical classical ballet style. Noted features of this choreography included dancers remaining earthbound and moving around with a great deal of stomping. To complete the immersion in the world of prehistoric Russia, Nicholas Roerich designed both the costumes and the stage set.

Design for Act I by Nicholas Roerich. Retrieved from here.

While this piece has made its way into the symphonic canon since its debut, it is an understatement to say it was poorly received at the time. In fact, its premiere has gone down in history as one of the most famously unsuccessful of all time! The general story of the premiere is that divisiveness of the music reportedly caused a great deal of audience reactions, including booing and screaming so loud that the dancers could not hear the orchestra. Disagreements eventually led to a violent riot requiring the dispatching of police.

Igor Stravinsky’s thoughts on the whole thing.

One source I have read, classic.fm, has repeatedly stated that there were anti-Russian demonstrators within the crowd, giving a political motivation as well as an artistic reaction to the ballet. Other sources have suggested that the true outrage was not at the music, but rather at the choreography. Both of these are fairly plausible explanations for the reaction of the ballet-going audience devolving into a riot. Whatever the causes of this first reaction was, the ensuing performances were apparently much less rowdy. In fact, by the next year, when the piece premiered as a concert work, Stravinsky was apparently carried from the concert hall on the shoulders of his admirers!

The fascination with this revolutionary piece of music has remained since. In 1940, a slightly edited version of The Rite of Spring was included as a part of Fantasia. The animation which went with the music dispensed with the original story, though it kept with the themes of a brutal, primordial earth.

The Rite of Spring
Humans were also dispensed with. Retrieved from here.

Stravinsky himself was still alive to see this interpretation of his work, which he was apparently pleased with at the time but later came to dislike.

In 1987, the Joffrey Ballet created a revival of the original costuming and sets to go along with the original orchestration.

Despite being over a hundred years old, the music of The Rite of Spring still sounds wild and innovative to this day, and is still inciting conversations. If you’re unfamiliar with the music, perhaps this is the day to familiarize yourself!

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