The revolutionary myth of ‘The Rite of Spring’

Stravinsky’s ballet, which debuted 100 years ago, is a great work, but not as iconoclastic as its fans claim.

Luke Gittos

Luke Gittos

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‘The Rite of Spring’ is surrounded equally by both brilliance and bullshit. Most of the latter was propounded by its composer, Igor Stravinsky. His 30-minute modernist ballet, usually credited with commencing modern music as we know it, is brilliant. But, and I write this as a big Stravinsky fan, its continuing position of godlike supremacy arguably speaks as much to a lack of any similar ‘revolutionary’ classical works today as it does to the quality of the piece itself.

A programme note for a 2004 performance of ‘The Rite of Spring’ noted that commentators ‘rarely introduce the piece without reference to the riot at its premiere’. And on the centenary of that notorious debut at the Paris Theatre du Champs-Elysees on 29 May 1913, commentators have reliably followed suit. Every article about the centenary mentions the ‘riot’ that erupted in the course of the debut. Given the state of contemporary classical music, in which perceived ‘subversion’ is the norm, it is not surprising that the ‘riot of the Rite’ remains intriguing. The idea that the French ballet-going public could be so offended by a piece, which they saw as a challenge to the traditional ideals of ballet, must seem odd to contemporary readers, who live at a time when any idea of traditional values in classical music have become passé.

However, the ‘riot’, or whatever it was, was certainly not occasioned by the music alone. When the piece was performed as an orchestral work only a year later, it received a rapturous reception. It is hard to believe that audiences in 1913 would have been particularly offended by the opening of the ‘Rite’ – some reports of the debut even say that the audience was silent until the curtain arose around three minutes in. The ballet was performed by Le Ballets Russes, which was run by an extrovert Russian dandy and long-time collaborator with Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev. The company had been established precisely to stage exotic and provocative ballet in order to rejuvenate an artform that was widely perceived to be stagnating. Further, the ‘Rite’ itself had been preceded by reviews anticipating scenes of child rape and murder. It is hard to imagine that Stravinsky was right when he told a journalist many years later that the disruption was a result of an audience who had ‘come for “Cleopatra” and got “La Sacre du Printemps”’.

No doubt some of the hostility arose from the subject matter and staging of the ballet. The sight of ‘knock-kneed Lolitas’ – in Stravinsky’s own words – jumping up and down in the course of a ritualistic sacrifice of a young girl dancing herself to death was bound to cause a stir. But it is hard to believe the audience was taken by surprise, when you consider that Stravinsky’s choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky, was already highly controversial due to his staging of overtly sexual works. Only the year before, he had choreographed his own ballet, ‘L’Apres-Midi d’un Faun’, which had been called ‘filthy and bestial’ in Le Figaro, which carried a denunciation of the ballet as its front page following its debut in May 1912.

By 1913, traditional modes of composition had also been under attack for some time. Stravinsky’s work was borne out of the early twentieth century’s ‘crisis of tonality’, in which the traditional methods of composing were being left behind. He was also influenced by the Russian nationalism of his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who was among a group of Russian composers seeking to establish a Russian classical tradition through the re-imagination of traditional Russian music and culture.

Stravinsky was certainly not the only composer experimenting with new compositional methods, nor was he the most daring. The Second Viennese School of composers, including, most famously, Arnold Schoenberg, preached composition that abandoned any tonal references whatsoever, an approach later developed by Pierre Boulez and others. Schoenberg’s ‘Book of Hanging Gardens’ debuted in 1910, in the same year as Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird Suite’. While the ‘Firebird’ would propel Stravinsky to immediate fame, the more radical departure from traditional tonality, as embodied in ‘Book of Hanging Gardens’, was variously dismissed and ignored. While Stravinsky was certainly a radical, he was a product of a far broader move away from traditional tonality, which had been taken further by composers elsewhere.

By the time of ‘Rite’, Stravinsky was at a peak in his career. The ‘Firebird Suite’, which had debuted in Paris in 1910, had been followed by ‘Petrushka’, another ballet for Le Ballet Russes, which had premiered in 1911 to great acclaim. Both the ‘Firebird’ and ‘Petrushka’ foreshadowed techniques that would be employed in ‘Rite’ – although Stravinsky tried to convince people that he just closed his eyes and became ‘a medium’ through which ‘Rite’ wrote itself. All three pieces placed familiar harmonies and melodies – many taken from Russian folk music – into blocks, which were repeated, varied, inverted, passed around the orchestra and reworked, allowing him to build large sections of his compositions from relatively little harmonic material. ‘Rite’ itself utilised the same chord 59 times. While it is no underestimation to say that aspects of ‘Rite’ were revolutionary, it was also a more relentless application of techniques that Stravinsky had established in his earlier work, set to more daring and arresting choreography.

One hundred years later, ‘The Rite of Spring’ is unquestioningly held up as the starting point of modern music. Reading the commentary, you might also imagine that it represented the peak of experimentation in music. The piece is certainly a relic of a time when society knew what it wanted and certain ‘revolutionary’ artists were able to strike out and push things forward. It is hard to imagine any contemporary piece of classical music causing a riot in the Royal Albert Hall or the Royal Opera House, because the twentieth century has left classical music devoid of its traditional values. ‘Rite’ is a fantastic, powerful piece of music and an arresting ballet. But the fact that it is still seen as the ‘revolutionary’ moment of the twentieth century begs a question: where are the other revolutions, and what would they revolt against?

Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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