The Rite of Spring
When one hears the word ‘ballet’, the first picture that comes to mind may be one of graceful dancers dressed in breathtakingly beautiful costumes, gliding across the stage and entrancing the audience with their delicately skilled moves. The audience that filled the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29th May, 1913 expected nothing less. However, when the curtain rose on the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps that day, the first few bars of the piece and the sight displayed on the stage aggravated the audience so much so that it caused one of the worst riots in music history, infamously marking it as a major turning point in the composition and perception of Western music.
Stravinsky had started working on the piece in 1911, after massive success with the ballet Petrushka, and soon collaborated with Vaslav Nijinsky, a famous dancer who had recently been involved in a minor scandal, for the choreography. However, the news that the Ballets Russes, a company of Russian dancers led by noted impresario Serge Diaghilev, who had entranced and shocked Paris ever since their first appearance in 1909, was going to be performing the ballet was what drew spectators in large numbers.
Stravinsky, however, disliked working with Nijinsky as he disapproved of the dancer’s vulgar choreography and stated that the man simply did not understand what the music was about. When asked about his reaction to the performance, he recounted, “The curtain opened on a group of knock-kneed and long-braided lolitas, jumping up and down. The storm broke.”
The ‘storm’ referred to the explosive jeering by the audience that had completely drowned out the 100-piece orchestra, leaving the dancers on stage to rely exclusively on the counts being shouted by Nijinsky from the prompt. Within the first few lines of the piece, the police had been called to handle the rioters that yelled at the top of their voices while throwing everything available around them at the orchestra and the dancers on stage.
The Rite of Spring is divided into two parts - The Adoration of the Earth and The Sacrifice. Stravinsky’s musical development in the piece is beautifully expressed with the beginning of the first movement having just a single bassoon solo, followed by the slow addition of a few instruments at a time along with the extensive use of polyphony (more than one line of melody at the same time), letting the piece build up until nearly the entire orchestra is involved, only to have it resolved with the same bassoon solo being repeated in the end. His use of diatonic harmonies throughout the piece along with irregular rhythms make it stand out in many ways compared to the other compositions of his time.
It will never be clear whether the reason for this extreme response was just a mere dislike for the artistic elements of the piece (which was still surprising considering most of the audience was composed of people from the relatively Bohemian parts of Paris who had witnessed performances involving similar pagan ritualism) or if there were political reasons as well. It was reported that there were anti-Russian, anti-Diaghilev, and anti-Nijinsky factions at work who were determined to disrupt proceedings before a note of music had been heard. Stravinsky’s composition was a key turning point in Western music as it marked the end of the structured, rule-abiding Romantic era, and opened the door to the Modern era of music.