Celebrating the Rite that caused a riot

Hundred years after it was denounced at its premiere in Paris, Stravinsky's work is being feted as a revolutionary moment for western classical music and dance.

May 29, 2013 12:56 am | Updated 12:56 am IST

THROUGH FRESH EYES: The ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow. The production centres around an imaginary pagan ritual of human sacrifice. Photo: AP

THROUGH FRESH EYES: The ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow. The production centres around an imaginary pagan ritual of human sacrifice. Photo: AP

May 29, 1913, was a warm, balmy spring evening in Paris. The Theatre des Champs Elysees, the latest French temple to modernity, had opened its doors just a month earlier, on April 2, and its gilded salons were filled by members of the city’s intellectual, artistic and business elites — men in tophats and tails, bejewelled women glittering in their long, formal gowns.

The air was thick with expectation. The highly regarded Ballets Russes company, directed by impresario Sergei Diaghilev, was presenting The Rite of Spring , the new ballet and concert by its 27-year-old wunderkind composer, Igor Stravinsky, who had already given the world such stunning successes as The Firebird and Petrushka . Nicholas Roerich, who later became India’s first New Age guru, had designed both the costumes and the lush, lavish sets, and star dancer, the mythical Vaslav Nijinsky, was the choreographer.


But just a few bars into the opening bassoon solo, it became clear that something was going horribly wrong. The audience’s discomfiture was immediately palpable. Instead of the elegant and charming musical phraseology that it was expecting, it got a solo set so high beyond the instrument’s range, that people were left wondering if what they were hearing was really a bassoon. Almost immediately, a part of the audience began to boo and hiss. Defenders of the music turned upon their opponents and a slanging match ensued that quickly degenerated into fisticuffs.

Artist, writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau who was in the theatre and who dined with Stravinsky later said the audiences were usually composed of two diverse elements: the wealthy fashionable set whose tastes lay on the conservative, predictable side and the “Bohemians, who would acclaim, right or wrong, anything that is new because of their hatred of the (opera) boxes.” But critics too were sharply divided, some hailing the work as revolutionary, inspired and path-breaking, while others derided it as cacophonous and self -indulgent.

Even today, music directors remain fascinated by what happened. “It is difficult to say what angered them more: the dancing with its strange angular, jerky movements, the flinging out of arms, the slapping of thighs, or the music with its pulsing, throbbing rhythms, it’s atonal quality, its dissonance and stop and start aspect,” Serge Sobczynski of the Orchestre Nationale de Lille told The Hindu in an interview last week.

The police was called in and ejected some 40 troublemakers. But the fighting continued after the intermission. Diaghilev had placed some of his own people in the audience and they started clapping and cheering. This angered those who detested the work they were watching and they turned on the supporters.

“The shouting was so loud that it drowned out the orchestra and the dancers on stage could not hear the music. So there were Nijinsky and Diaghilev in the wings, calling out the steps and stomping their feet. Diaghilev had instructed the conductor, Pierre Monteux not to stop mid-way, come what may, and the ballet was performed to the end followed by a few curtain calls and clapping and thumping. But,” said Sobczynski who has held high positions in several French cultural institutions, “it was a revolutionary moment, both for music and dance.”

Modern dance, he said, could be traced back to that moment, as could a lot of the great music that followed. “Today, ironically, The Rite of Spring has become one of the most recorded and performed pieces, as a ballet, but even more as a concert piece.”

The concert-ballet, with the subtitle “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts,” was described by Stravinsky himself as “a musical choreographic work representing pagan Russia unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring.” In his autobiography, he wrote: “One day I was finishing the last pages of The Firebird when I had a fleeting vision… I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite – sage elders seated in a circle watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate Yarila, the god of Spring…”

In July 1911, Stravinsky spent time with Nicholas Roerich, then considered the foremost expert on Russian folk art and traditional rituals, and together they thrashed out the scenario. It is widely believed that Roerich, who was staying with Princess Maria Tenisheva near Smolensk, was the real brain behind the setting. The Princess’s vast collection of artefacts and folk costumes proved a great source of inspiration.

Europeans at the time were fascinated by Russia. There had also been a late flowering of literature, painting music and the arts and there was a move to establish a nationalist Russian identity. “Several young composers were determined to carve out a musical identity that was distinctly Russian. They used Russian peasant myths and fantasies, epics and fairy tales, chants, dances and primeval rhythms to do so. So,” said Sobczynski, “the audience in Paris found something deeply provocative, shocking in the music and the dance. It was wild, savage and yet very gripping and disturbing in the extreme. The reaction was rejection and anger.”

Stravinsky, who grew up in an intensely musical household was in the midst of this artistic revolution. The way Romain Rolland described him, he was a serious looking, bespectacled young man with fleshy lips, a small moustache, big nose and thinning slicked back hair. He had a prodigious capacity for work and had started composing successfully at a very young age. Both The Firebird and Petrushka received great critical acclaim. He was not yet 25. “One of the greatest contributions of The Rite of Spring is that it set music and dance free. Ballet or dance no longer had to be just grace and elegance à la Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty . It could be raw, harsh, ugly, difficult to watch and that was alright,” said Sobczyinski, pointing out that all the greats of modern dance who came after Nijinsky — Balanchine, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch, Brigitte Lefevre, Marie Claude Pietragala — were all hugely influenced by the original choreography.

Musically too, The Rite of Spring has had a lasting effect and is today one of the most recorded pieces of music with a permanent place on the repertoires of many opera houses. The original 1913 autograph score is being published this month by the Paul Sacher Foundation to mark the work’s 100th anniversary.

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