By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University
One of the great music stories that Western classical music students learn is about the premiere of “Le Sacre du printemps” (also known as “The Rite of Spring”), created by Polish-Russian composer Igor Stravinsky in 1913. Used for a ballet performance at the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées in Paris, “The Rite of Spring” caused a riot and became one of the most famous scandals in music history.
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The story of the riot has been passed down through word-of-mouth stories and basic music history textbooks. For instance:
- “Its premiere in Paris on 29 May 1913 incited one of the most colorful riots in musical history and propelled Stravinsky to the summit of celebrity.” Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music
- “The first performance was vociferously challenged from the audience; the work’s status as one of the great avatars of modernism was at once affirmed.” The New Penguin Dictionary of Music
- “Its opening performance provided one of the most scandalous premieres in history, with pro and con members of the audience arguing so volubly that the dancers were unable to take their cues from the orchestra.” Encyclopedia Britannica
These tidbits from different sources sound exciting, salacious, and scandalous, and the premiere was a surefire hit for Stravinsky. But do these one-sentence fragments tell the whole story of the riot?
Stravinsky’s Musical Background
Igor Stravinsky was born in 1882 in Russia, and his family was of Polish descent. His family was musical, his father was a well-known bass singer, and he started studying music at a young age.
Stravinsky eventually attended the St. Petersburg University for music and studied as a young man with famed composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. After several years of intensive study with the great master, Stravinsky’s early works – “Scherzo” from 1907 and “Fireworks” from 1908 – achieved a certain amount of fame for the young composer.
This early notoriety got the attention of Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who was a distant relative of Stravinsky. Diaghilev brought Stravinsky to Paris for his Ballets Russes, an all-Russian ballet company performing for the Parisian public.
Stravinsky went on to produce two brilliant ballets for Diaghilev, “Firebird” in 1910 and “Petrushka” in 1911. These works built upon his musical language that he started in “Scherzo” and “Fireworks” and began to move past the general style of the day by using extremely complex harmonies and difficult rhythms and melodies.
The Early Decades of 20th-Century Music Saw a Changing Landscape
In the first two decades of the 20th century, composers were changing the musical landscape. Richard Strauss was producing works that took tonality to its breaking point (without breaking it); Claude Debussy was creating impressionism-style music; and Anton Schoenberg was creating expressionistic music that by 1913 dropped tonality completely and led to 12-tone music.
By the time “The Rite of Spring” premiered, there were many composers writing challenging music. But for the most part, this music was found in concert halls and some opera houses, but generally not in ballet.
“The Rite of Spring,” however, was very different music from its predecessors. Generally, ballet music was more conservative than the concert hall, where you might hear Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” Richard Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” (or any of Strauss’s tone poems), Alexander Scriabin’s “The Poem of Ecstasy,” or Arnold Schonberg’s “Five Pieces for Orchestra.”
Each of these musical works pushed the limits of tonality starting in the 1890s until “Five Pieces for Orchestra” wandered into free atonality. “The Rite of Spring” used many of the techniques of all of these pieces to create a percussive, dissonant work. It used aspects of tonality, triadic composition, and all of the techniques of the late Romantic era freely to communicate in a way that was unrestricted and uniquely Stravinsky.
Paris Was Considered a Cultural Capital
A 1913 New York Times colorfully describes the society surrounding the premiere of “The Rite of Spring.” The Times observed, “Take the best society possible, composed of rich, simple-minded, idle people. Then submit them to an intense regime of publicity. By booklets, newspaper articles, lectures, personal visits and all other appeals to their snobbery.” It went on, “Impress them with cabalistic formulae. They have not the slightest notion of music, literature, painting, and dancing.”
Basically, Diaghilev, Polish dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (choreographer to the Ballet Russes), and Stravinsky had been giving the Parisians what they wanted. The fact that the audience was more interested in the status of ballet than the actual ballet is nothing new in classical music. At the time, the Ballets Russes was also novel in France.
In the early 20th century, Paris was the cultural capital of the Europe, and French was still the lingua franca of the day. Ballet was a place for the rich to be seen dressed up in their finest while being seen by their peers.
How the Premiere of ‘The Rite of Spring’ Began
During the premiere of “The Rite of Spring,” the first ballet performed was “Les Sylphides” with music by Frederic Chopin. Classical concerts before the 20th century were extremely long (imagine a game of cricket or a very long baseball game). To get an idea of what that initial experience would have been for the Parisian public, watch some of the American Ballet Theater perform “Les Sylphides.”
“Les Sylphides” was a ballet that used piano music by Frederic Chopin; the music was then arranged for an orchestra and made into a ballet. By 1913, Chopin’s music was well over 60 or 70 years old, depending on the piano piece. It was similar to the music of Beethoven (late style), Robert Schumann or Vincenzo Bellini (early Romantic).
Watching and listening to “Les Sylphides” would have fulfilled the expectation of every Parisian: beautiful music, lush orchestration, and beautiful dancers in beautiful outfits. Then, “The Rite of Spring” started.
When “The Rite of Spring” started playing, was it the music that started the riot? In The New York Times, Richard Taruskin stated, “But it was not Stravinsky’s music that did the shocking. It was the ugly earthbound lurching and stomping devised by Vaslav Nijinsky.”
He then followed it up with, “Once the whistlers and hooters got going, nobody even heard the music. Most of the reviews paid no attention to Stravinsky beyond naming him as the composer before turning with gusto to the weird antics onstage and the weirder ones in the hall.”
According to a 1914 entry in the Oxford History of Music, “The Rite of Spring” was performed in the concert hall, not as a ballet, and “the composer enjoyed the greatest triumph of his career.” Cultural preferences do not change that much in one year, especially in Europe before World War I.
Multiple Truths Are Involved in the Story of ‘The Rite of Spring’ Riot
So was it the music that started the riot? Was it the dancing that started the riot? Was it a little bit of both? Should it even be called a riot?
As Taruskin stated, it seems what really occurred was the Parisian public did not like Nijinsky’s choreography, the dancing, the costumes, and the scenery. They did not like what they could see and somewhat ignored the music. However, if you read excerpts from music history books, the simplistic read of the premiere was that it was Stravinsky’s music that caused the riot.
What does the story of the premiere of “The Rite of Spring” teach us about how we tell stories, information literacy and the truth? While the simple story of “The Rite of Spring” is exciting, we need more information from an information literacy and historical perspective to accurately judge what actually occurred.
To find the truth about the premiere of “The Rite of Spring,” the following would need to be explained:
- Musical norms in Paris in the first decade and a half of the 20th century
- Stravinsky’s development as a young composer (he lived until 1971)
- The identities of Diagalev and Njinsky
- The norms and culture of the people who attended the Paris ballet in the early 1900s
- The aesthetic expectations of ballet in Paris in the early 1900s
- The costumes worn by the dancers during “The Rite of Spring” (inspired by what the creators thought “primitive” Russia looked like)
To understand the full context of an event like the 1913 premiere of “The Rite of Spring,” you have to understand what was going on at the time, what led to the event, what the culture was like, and most importantly, what people’s expectations and assumptions were. But that takes time and effort, and it is really difficult.
Most history books and articles try to present short vignettes of events because they do not have the time to go into depth and tell a more complete narrative. Ultimately, the truth behind the premiere of “The Rite of Spring” is far more complex, nuanced and confusing than what you can ever find in history books.
About the Author
Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.
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