Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was first performed on this date in 1913. It was written for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company; the original choreography was by Vaslav Nijinsky, with stage designs and costumes by Nicholas Roerich. When first performed, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the avant-garde nature of the music and choreography caused a sensation and a near-riot in the audience. Although designed as a work for the stage, with specific passages accompanying characters and action, the music achieved equal if not greater recognition as a concert piece, and is widely considered to be one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century.
Stravinsky was a young, virtually unknown composer when Diaghilev recruited him to create works for the Ballets Russes. The Rite was the third such project, after the acclaimed Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911). The concept behind The Rite of Spring, developed by Roerich from Stravinsky’s outline idea, is suggested by its subtitle, “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”; in the scenario, after various “primitive” rituals celebrating the advent of spring, a young girl is chosen as a sacrificial victim and dances herself to death. After a mixed critical reception for its original run and a short London tour, the ballet was not performed again until the 1920s, when a version choreographed by Léonide Massine replaced Nijinsky’s original. Massine’s was the forerunner of many innovative productions directed by the world’s leading ballet-masters, which gained the work worldwide acceptance. In the 1980s, Nijinsky’s original choreography, long believed lost, was reconstructed by the Joffrey Ballet in Los Angeles.
Stravinsky’s score contains many revolutionary features for its time, including experiments in tonality, meter, rhythm, stress, and dissonance. Analysts have noted in the score a significant grounding in Russian folk music, a relationship Stravinsky tended to deny. The music has influenced many of the 20th-century’s leading composers, and is one of the most recorded works in the classical repertoire.
In 1909 Stravinsky’s early work, Feu d’artifice, was performed at a concert in St Petersburg. Among those in the audience was the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who at that time was planning to introduce Russian music and art to western audiences. Having heard Feu d’artifice he approached Stravinsky, initially with a request for help in orchestrating music by Chopin to create the ballet Les Sylphides. Stravinsky worked on the opening “Nocturne” and the closing “Valse Brillante”; his reward was a much bigger commission, to write the music for a new ballet, The Firebird (L’oiseau de feu) for the 1910 season. Then came Petrushka (1911) to stunning acclaim. The Rite of Spring followed.
Analyzing The Rite adequately in a short piece such as this is impossible. But I’ll try to give a glimpse. I’m going to divide my comments into three parts: (1) the intellectual conception behind the overall work and the choreography, (2) the music itself, and (3) the premiere.
Let me start with the bad news first. Roerich’s vision of a “pagan” Russia where grave elders presided over fertility rites for the renewal of the earth in Spring which involved, among other things, the sacrifice of a virgin to the gods, is utterly without merit. It comes from a nineteenth century Romantic delusion conjured up by European folklorists and anthropologists (along with assorted mystical loonies) that has ZERO basis in historical fact. I have railed against this stupidity in my academic writing, as well as here, on numerous occasions (e.g. https://www.bookofdaystales.com/may-daymay-morning/ . That a worthless intellectual and historical fantasy produced a masterpiece is a charming miracle.
I can’t really say a whole lot about the choreography as such because Nijinsky’s original is lost, and, although the Joffrey made a valiant effort to reconstruct it from Nijinsky’s notes, from what little I know of the reconstruction, it seems more Joffrey than Nijinsky.
The original costumes are laughable. They appear to be stylized versions of women’s clothing of Native Americans from the Great Plains (with suitable Russian embroidery) – a misguided allusion to them as “noble savages.” Equating “pagan” Russians with Native Americans stems from a, now thoroughly discredited, idea that ALL cultures evolved along the same path (although in different time periods), and, therefore, it was legitimate to take nineteenth century Plains Indians as models for ancient Russians. It is not.
Nijinsky’s choreography was apparently rooted to the ground, stomping in a parody of actual ritual, but quite natural given that the whole piece was about the worship of the earth. It was not, however, received well by audiences used to the sylphs in tutus of the classic ballet soaring high in the air. Stravinsky later described the dancers as “knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas.” Nonetheless, Stravinsky did praise Nijinsky’s work. To Maximilien Steinberg, a former fellow-pupil under Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky wrote that Nijinsky’s choreography had been “incomparable: with the exception of a few places, everything was as I wanted it.”
Addressing the technicalities of the music is a gigantic task I am not qualified to undertake (and you can skim if you wish). Just a few words. To begin, whether you know anything about how revolutionary this piece was or not, it is staggering to listen to. I first heard it (in somewhat altered form) as a teenager via Disney’s Fantasia. The Rite segment of the film depicts the Earth’s prehistory, leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Among those impressed by the film was Gunther Schuller, later a composer, conductor, and jazz scholar. The Rite of Spring sequence, he says, overwhelmed him and determined his future career in music: “I hope [Stravinsky] appreciated that hundreds—perhaps thousands—of musicians were turned on to The Rite of Spring … through Fantasia, musicians who might otherwise never have heard the work, or at least not until many years later.” Audiences were not ready for Rite in 1913; they were in 1940. An excerpt:
According to musicologist Stephen Walsh the great innovation of The Rite is not the dissonance or the immobility of the harmonic progression because both of these ideas were in practice before Stravinsky’s work. Walsh cites Debussy’s Et la Lune Descend Sur le Temple Qui Fut (1907) as being both discordant and harmonically static. The true innovation was Stravinsky’s use of musical fragments and compelling rhythms to provide a structure to drive the dramatic action.
What nobody seems to have done before the Rite of Spring was to take dissonant, irregularly formed musical ‘objects’ of very brief extent and release their latent energy by firing them off at one another like so many particles in an atomic accelerator.
Stravinsky’s method of composition for The Rite was to arrange and layer small cells of music. These musical fragments often consist of as few as four notes, but they are repeated and reoriented to create ostinati (constant repetitions), or stacked to generate chords, or embellished to create melodic material. The Rite was originally thought to contain only one true folk tune: the high bassoon part which begins the introduction. Later investigation into more of Stravinsky’s sketches in 1969 revealed complete folk melodies copied from published collections Although, after being thoroughly worked, reorganized and chopped up by Stravinsky very little of the actual tune remains intact: just a faint whiff.
According to Pieter Van Den Toorn another strong adhesive component in the work is the ubiquitous use of the octatonic scale and its derived chords. Stravinsky not only employed the octatonic scale as others had before, he redefined its use and context completely. By using long streams of octatonic chords and adding chunks of diatonic material, Stravinsky created a new sound. The octatonic scale is an eight note scale consisting of the pattern / H / W / H / W / H / W / H / W / [H= half step, W=whole step]. Thus,
. . . symmetrically defined units no longer succeed one another, harmlessly, as they do in the operas of Rimsky or in the early Stravinsky passages cited above. These units are now superimposed—played simultaneously. And this is an invention from which startling implications accrue not only in pitch organization but, as a consequence, in rhythm and instrumental design as well. It radically alters the conditions of octatonic confinement, opens up a new dimension in octatonic thought that Stravinsky, beginning with Petrushka and The Rite , was to render peculiarly his own.
Enough technicality. To put it in my own simplistic words, tonal music (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven etc.) appears to be going “somewhere.” It starts off in the home key, progresses in various ways, and then returns home. Atonal music can leave you with the sense that it is going nowhere. Stravinsky magically managed to compose atonally and yet leads you “somewhere.”
The conductor Pierre Monteux had worked with Diaghilev since 1911, and had been in charge of the orchestra at the premiere of Petrushka. Monteux’s first reaction to The Rite, after hearing Stravinsky play a piano version, was to leave the room and find a quiet corner. Although he would perform his duties with conscientious professionalism, he never came to enjoy the work; nearly fifty years after the premiere he told enquirers that he detested it. On 30 March Monteux informed Stravinsky of modifications he thought were necessary to the score, all of which the composer implemented. The orchestra, drawn mainly from the Concerts Colonne in Paris, was, with 99 players, much larger than was normally employed at the theater, and had difficulty fitting into the orchestra pit.
After the first part of the ballet received two full orchestral rehearsals in March, Monteux and the company departed to perform in Monte Carlo. Rehearsals resumed when they returned; the unusually large number of rehearsals—seventeen solely orchestral and five with the dancers—were fitted into the fortnight before the opening, after Stravinsky’s arrival in Paris on 13 May. The music contained so many unusual note combinations that Monteux had to ask the musicians to stop interrupting when they thought they had found mistakes in the score, saying he would tell them if something was played incorrectly. According to Monteux, “The musicians thought it absolutely crazy”. At one point, a climactic brass fortissimo, the orchestra broke up in nervous laughter at the sound, causing Stravinsky to intervene angrily.
The premiere of Rite was held in Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, a new structure which had opened on 2 April 1913 with a program celebrating the works of many of the leading composers of the day. The theater’s manager, Gabriel Astruc, was determined to house the 1913 Ballets Russes season, and paid Diaghilev the enormous sum of 25,000 francs per performance, double what he had paid the previous year. Ticket sales for the evening, ticket prices being doubled for a premiere, amounted to 35,000 francs. The program for 29 May 1913 also included Les Sylphides, Weber’s Le Spectre de la Rose and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.
At the time, a Parisian ballet audience typically consisted of two diverse groups: the wealthy and fashionable set, who would be expecting to see a traditional performance with beautiful music, and a “Bohemian” group who, the poet-philosopher Jean Cocteau asserted, would “acclaim, right or wrong, anything that is new because of their hatred of the boxes” (i.e. the rich). Final rehearsals were held on the day before the premiere, in the presence of members of the press and assorted invited guests. According to Stravinsky all went peacefully. However, the critic of L’Écho de Paris, Adolphe Boschot, foresaw possible trouble; he wondered how the public would receive the work, and suggested that they might react badly if they thought they were being mocked.
What actually happened at the premiere is a matter of ongoing debate. Were things thrown at the orchestra? Were the police called? Did Diaghilev deliberately plant rowdies in the audience with the specific intent of creating a “sensation,” etc. etc. Eyewitness reports vary wildly. On the evening of the 29 May the theater was packed: Gustav Linor reported, “Never … has the hall been so full, or so resplendent; the stairways and the corridors were crowded with spectators eager to see and to hear”. The evening began with Les Sylphides, in which Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina danced the main roles. Rite of Spring followed. Some eyewitnesses and commentators said that the disturbances in the audience began during the Introduction, and grew into a crescendo when the curtain rose on the stamping dancers in “Augurs of Spring”. But music historian Richard Taruskin asserts, “it was not Stravinsky’s music that did the shocking. It was the ugly earthbound lurching and stomping devised by Vaslav Nijinsky.” Marie Rambert, who was working as an assistant to Nijinsky, recalled later that it was soon impossible to hear the music on the stage. In his autobiography, Stravinsky writes that the derisive laughter that greeted the first bars of the Introduction disgusted him, and that he left the auditorium to watch the rest of the performance from the stage wings. The demonstrations, he says, grew into “a terrific uproar” which, along with the on-stage noises, drowned out the voice of Nijinsky who was shouting the stepping count to the dancers (which they had great difficulty with because of Stravinsky’s unusual rhythms). The journalist and photographer Carl Van Vechten famously recorded that the person behind him got carried away with excitement, and “began to beat rhythmically on top of my head”, though Van Vechten failed to notice this at first, his own emotion being so great.
Monteux believed that the trouble began when the two factions in the audience began attacking each other, but their mutual anger was soon diverted towards the orchestra: “Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on”. Around forty of the worst offenders were ejected—possibly with the intervention of the police, although this is uncorroborated. Through all the disturbances the performance continued without interruption. Things grew noticeably quieter during Part II, and by some accounts Maria Piltz’s rendering of the final “Sacrificial Dance” was watched in reasonable silence. At the end there were several curtain calls for the dancers, for Monteux and the orchestra, and for Stravinsky and Nijinsky before the evening’s program continued.
Among the more hostile press reviews was that of Le Figaro ’s critic, Henri Quittard, who called the work “a laborious and puerile barbarity” and added “We are sorry to see an artist such as M. Stravinsky involve himself in this disconcerting adventure”. On the other hand Gustav Linor, writing in the leading theatrical magazine Comoedia, thought the performance was superb, especially that of the lead Maria Piltz; the disturbances, while deplorable, were merely “a rowdy debate” between two ill-mannered factions. Emile Raudin, of Les Marges, who had barely heard the music, wrote: “Couldn’t we ask M. Astruc … to set aside one performance for well-intentioned spectators? The composer Alfredo Casella thought that the demonstrations were aimed at Nijinsky’s choreography rather than at the music, a view shared by the critic Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, who wrote: “The idea was excellent, but was not successfully carried out”. Calvocoressi failed to observe any direct hostility to the composer—unlike, he said, the premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902. Of later reports that the veteran composer Camille Saint-Saëns had stormed out of the premiere, Stravinsky observed that this was impossible; Saint-Saëns did not attend. Stravinsky also rejected Cocteau’s story that, after the performance, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Diaghilev and Cocteau himself took a cab to the Bois de Boulogne where a tearful Diaghilev recited poems by Pushkin. Stravinsky merely recalled a celebratory dinner with Diaghilev and Nijinsky, at which the impresario expressed his entire satisfaction with the outcome.
On 18 February 1914 The Rite received its first concert performance (the music without the ballet), in St Petersburg under Serge Koussevitzky. On 5 April that year, Stravinsky experienced for himself the popular success of The Rite as a concert work, at the Casino de Paris. After the performance, again under Monteux, the composer was carried in triumph from the hall on the shoulders of his admirers. The Rite had its first British concert performance on 7 June 1921, at the Queen’s Hall in London under Eugene Goossens. Its U.S. premiere occurred on 3 March 1922, when Leopold Stokowski included it in a Philadelphia Orchestra programme. Goossens was also responsible for introducing The Rite to Australia on 23 August 1946 at the Sydney Town Hall, as guest conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Here’s an acceptable rendering:
For a recipe today I have chosen Russian honey cake because of this story:
Stravinsky and Rachmaninov had been contemporaries in St Petersburg but they did not actually meet until they started dining together in California in the 1940s. Although in opposite camps when it came to modernism, Rachmaninov very much wanted to be friends with his fellow composer. One night Stravinsky had gone to bed late after working on his orchestral suite, Four Norwegian Moods. To his surprise he heard footsteps on the porch outside. There towering over him – as he did over most people – was the lugubrious figure of Rachmaninov bearing a very large jar of natural honey. The explanation? At a recent meal Stravinsky had announced how much he loved honey and this determined Rachmaninov to bring some round, regardless of the hour.
I can’t do better for an actual recipe than this fabulously detailed one:
It is complete with step-by-step instructions and photographs.