"The Rite of Spring" at 100

The evening performance had begun quietly enough with Les Sylphides, a ballet set to music of Chopin. Though only four years in the repertoire of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, it was a reliable crowd-pleaser.

Les Sylphides
Les Sylphides

The audience of Parisians filling the orchestra seats, boxes and stalls had every reason to anticipate a conventional program, with leggy ballerinas in tutus and pointe shoes, fantasies of femininity, a world famously rendered in pastel by Edgar Degas.

“Blue Dancers,” Edgar Degas
“Blue Dancers,” Edgar Degas

Formally dressed gentlemen peering through opera glasses looked forward to post-curtain erotic rendezvous with dancers from the corps de ballet: dinner, perhaps followed by late night dalliance.

That late spring day, May 29, 1913 had been unusually warm for Paris, the thermometer reaching 85 degrees. The air was vibrant inside the new Théâtre des Champs Elysées on Rue Montaigne when, after the interval, the curtain rose on the premiere of a new ballet commissioned by impresario Diaghilev: choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, costumes and sets by Leon Bakst, background design by Nicholas Roerich and music by Igor Stravinsky—Russians all. The Rite of Spring was a highly anticipated score by the 30-year-old émigré composer who had already delighted Ballet Russes audiences in previous seasons with the colorful, mytho-folkloric themes of The Firebird and Petrushka. Stravinsky had labored over this new score for several years, recounting the story’s origin in his memoir, Chronicles:

One day I had a fleeting vision, which came to me as a complete surprise, my mind at the moment being full of other things. I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite—sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death.

Stravinsky was not known to share much credit with his collaborators, and many historians cite the mystic/philosopher Roerich as the true creator of the story.

Though the two composers had never been close colleagues, a duo piano version of the score was played the year before by Stravinsky and Claude Debussy. On the very day of the premiere Debussy wrote to a friend:

The Rite of Spring is extraordinarily wild… And you might say, it’s primitive music with all the modern conveniences.

Those “modern conveniences” comprised an orchestra of over 90 musicians, large for a ballet, forces grander than Stravinsky was to employ again throughout his long career. Still, there was no reason to expect a cultural contretemps this evening.  The dress rehearsal of the day before, May 28, had included Debussy, Ravel and much of the Parisian arts' press without incident. But, as insurance, Diaghilev had engaged a claque seated near the high priced boxes to insure a positive response in the event of boos or catcalls; but once unleashed, this paid rabble elicited a counter response; it continued to escalate during the next half hour.

The music begins quietly enough, with solo bassoon playing in a high register, giving a pinched feel; other woodwinds join in an escalating dissonance. This introduction was played with a closed curtain. It opened to the dissonant, mashed chords and stomping dancers' feet of the "Augurs of Spring" section.

New Yorker music critic Alex Ross describes it:

You have these two chords slammed together: E Major—actually F-Flat Major, as it's spelled in the score—and an E-Flat Dominant 7th chord. These are two adjacent chords. They're dissonant. They're being jammed together. And that's a harsh sound, and he keeps insisting on it. That chord repeats and repeats and repeats, pounding away.

There is a story that when Stravinsky first played the piano version for Diaghilev, the impresario asked just how long the dissonant, ostinato chords would sound—“to the end, dear Serge, to the very end.”

Stravinsky abandoned the orchestra seats early on, retreating to the stage wings next to Nijinsky, who had just danced the main male role in Les Sylphides.  Stories of the ongoing uproar have become myths of the modern cultural era. The composer’s own account is visceral:

These demonstrations, at first isolated, soon became general, provoking counter-demonstrations, and very soon developed into a terrific uproar. During the whole performance I was at Nijinsky’s side in the wings. He was standing on a chair, screaming, ‘sixteen, seventeen, eighteen’—they had their own method of counting to keep time. Naturally, the poor dancers could hear nothing by reason of the row in the auditorium and the sound of their own dance steps. I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes for he was furious and ready to dash on to the stage at any moment and create a scandal. Diaghilev kept ordering the electricians to turn the lights on or off, hoping in that way to put an end to the noise.

Ross gives an audience perspective of the wild doings in his brilliant and very readable book on the history of 2oth century classical music, The Rest Is Noise:

Amazon, com— The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Gertrude Stein and the 23-year-old future filmmaker Jean Cocteau were in the audience. Stein recalled:

Our attention was constantly distracted by a man in the box next to us flourishing his cane, and finally in a violent altercation with an enthusiast in the box next to him, his cane coming down and smashing the opera hat the other had put on in defiance.

Serge Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky.
Serge Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky.

When queried about the audience response, music historian Andre Boucourechliev writes that Diaghilev said simply, “Exactly what I wanted.” The writer continues:

Exactly three weeks later, Stravinsky ate some oysters—in a month without an “r” in it and went down with a bad attack of typhoid immediately afterwards, spending six weeks in a nursing home in Neuilly, where his mother came to look after him.

The obvious question is—“was it really the oysters?”

The week before the May 29, 2013 centennial, NPR offered several news stories looking back at the premiere’s “riot,” with Ross as guide through the thorny musical landscape. Click the “listen now” icon to launch the media player for his riveting tale.

npr.org—Then the Curtain Opened the Bracing Impact of Stravinskys ‘Rite’

As groundbreaking as the music was, it is perhaps more Nijinsky’s choreography that set the refined balletomanes’ teeth on edge. Graceful, sweeping port des bras, metronomic pirouettes, gravity defying jetes, perfectly tapered legs on pointe, had long been the grammar of classical ballet in both the Russian and French traditions. The “turnout” walk of dancers was, and remains, a dancer’s signature, even out on city streets. Bakst’s dancers were clad in voluminous, bold colored rough cloth; they were shod in unstylish slippers and their feet pounded an insistent turned-in, pigeon toed tattoo.


The music of The Rite of Spring has long been a concert hall perennial, as well as a pivot point for students of modern music history. The furor over the May 29 premiere quickly abated, and the remaining few performances were not only well received but gave every indication that the score at least would become a classic of the concert repertoire. Its conductor, Pierre Monteux, became closely indentified with The Rite of Spring and performed it worldwide for the next 50 years. In my college years, I had a direct link back to that 1913 premiere when I saw Monteux conduct the San Francisco Symphony.

06_Pierre Monteux

Diaghilev soon abandoned the ballet, possibly as punishment over being jilted by his lover Nijinsky, who some months after the premiere even presumed to marry a woman. A few years later, Nijinsky was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was in and out of mental institutions for the rest of his life. The other principal creators moved on, Stravinsky emerging unexpectedly as a neo-classicist after WWI. Nijinsky’s choreography, sadly, became lost in time.

In 1971, Robert Joffrey undertook a restoration of Nijinsky’s original choreography with dance historian Millicent Hodson, with the intention of staging The Rite of Spring for his own company. He did so, but it took sixteen years and a near forensic exhumation of sketches, photos, notes and interviews with surviving principals. The results were shown to the world in 1987. I saw it the following year at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles where the Joffrey Ballet had a few seasons of residence. Their restoration has continued to travel with the company.

07_ joffrey rite

Fortunately, the Joffrey reconstruction is on YouTube for you to experience the clash of sensibilities reflected in the soaring modernist orchestral score and in the primitive rituals of offering and sacrifice of the relentlessly earthbound dancers. The ballet’s two parts are on three videos.

Over the past century the Stravinsky score has been an irresistible lure for every major ballet company to stage, including the highly personal ones of Maurice Bejart and the late Pina Bausch.

Pina Bausch
Pina Bausch

I wrote a blog on Bausch in January of 2011 in conjunction with the release of the Wim Wenders 3-D documentary on his friend, titled simply Pina. But none of these ambitious efforts to restage The Rite of Spring in modernist fashion can equal the raw vigor and primal urgency of Nijinsky’s original choreography.

John’s Bailiwick—“Pina Bausch: ‘Dance, Dance or We Are Lost’”

A timely exhibition currently at the National Gallery in Washington, DC examines the impact of Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes on the intersecting disciplines of early 2oth century art. An accompanying NPR story by veteran commentator Susan Stamberg is a roll call of the giants of European Modernism.

npr.org—Modern Movement How the Ballets Russes Revolutionized Dance

Like many of my generation I first heard The Rite of Spring not in the concert hall, but on television, and not as one of Leonard Bernstein’s legendary “Young Peoples’ Concerts.” In October 1954, Walt Disney began to host a weekly television show called “Disneyland” even as his theme park of the same name was under construction in Anaheim. The 1940 animated film Fantasia became a ready source for the show’s installments from “Fantasyland.” Dancing hippos in Dance of the Hours, a bewitched bacchanal Night on Bald Mountain and Mickey Mouse as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice were segments. But the most riveting of all for many young boys were the battling dinosaurs on a primeval Earth that were featured in The Rite of Spring.

The flashiest of all orchestra conductors of that era, with his much-publicized affair with Greta Garbo, was Leopold Stokowski, then music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

10_garbo and stokowski

Much of the final film score was performed by that orchestra under Stokowski’s baton, and recorded with advanced stereo multi-tracking at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music.

In the recording sessions, thirty-three microphones were placed around the orchestra that captured the music onto eight optical sound recording machines placed in the hall's basement. Each one represented an audio channel that focused on a different section of instruments: cellos and basses, violins, brass, violas, and woodwinds and tympani. The seventh channel was a combination of the first six while the eighth provided an overall sound of the orchestra at a distance. (Wikipedia)

To bridge the animated sections of Fantasia, the live action of the orchestra was photographed in intense splashy color by James Wong Howe, with Mickey at one point gaining the podium to shake hands with Stokowski. Fantasia on television was my introduction to Stravinsky.

11_stokowski fantasia
12_dinosaur fantasia

My own feeble attempts to read music have never gone beyond the two lines of a piano score, and even then I confess to following it rather than “reading.” When I was a student in Vienna on a junior year abroad program, I would envy the dozens of students and even mature adults who would attend a Mahler symphony concert in the Musikverein or the Konzerthaus, clutching a full orchestra score, their eyes never straying from the page as the orchestra crescendos flooded the auditorium. So, it was with amazement that during my research for this piece I discovered the animation of Stephen Malinowski who for more than forty years has been visualizing via bar graphs a kind of flowing full score for many works of classical music. His most recent effort is The Rite of Spring, completed in time for the centennial and discussed in an NPR blog by Anastasia Tsioulcas, who explains how this flow chart can give you understanding of the music’s structure:

People usually respond to sound in a unitary way. It's the reason why you can't follow more than one conversation at a time at a party, for example. But with vision, your brain is trained to comprehend multiple things at once: you can take in many more elements simultaneously. In music, there's often much more going on than you can grasp in that moment of hearing. When you have visualization, your eyes lead your ears through the music. You take advantage of your brain's ability to process multiple pieces of visual information simultaneously.

You can read the full blog piece here:

npr.org—Watch a Mind-Blowing Visualization of “The Rite of Spring”

Early on in the development of Fantasia, according to Malinowski, Disney had hired avant-garde filmmaker Oskar Fischinger to create animation. But the work that Fischinger provided was too abstract for Disney who chose, instead, the dinosaur romp of the finished film. It’s easy to imagine that Fischinger’s ideas may have been similar to those Malinowski has created with his “Music Animation Machine,” (MAM).

The two parts of the ballet as interpreted by Malinowski are on YouTube, and they provide a hypnotic insight to the score. Caveat: clicking on this video may pull you inside the music and keep you there to the end, a victim of its relentless ostinato.

If you watch the videos directly on YouTube, click the “show more” box to see Malinowski’s explanation of the graph notations.

On Wednesday evening May 29, 2013, exactly one hundred years after the premiere, Carol and I sat down with several friends to listen to a CD recording of the ballet- a kind of psychic/aural bridge across the century. Our player is an SACD Esoteric with separate Mark Levinson preamp and amplifier through Wilson Audio Watt-Puppy speakers. I’m not an audiophile, but I have little interest in listening to Stravinsky or Bach through earbuds on an iPod. That’s fine for Daft Punk or Aphex Twin, but please—not Beethoven or Brahms.

Sitting in the dark, listening to the Russian Kirov Orchestra conducted by the flamboyant Valery Gergiev—we did indeed fall into the music. Thinking about that first night audience a century ago, I could clearly picture the music’s revolutionary effect, both confusing and thrilling, much like that on the few dozen first-nighters on the blustery Parisian winter night of December 26, 1895, who attended another modernist premiere—the first paid public screening in the basement of the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines, of a near dozen short films by the Brothers Lumière.

Next: A newly re-mastered 4K of Haskell Wexler's "Medium Cool"



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