In music, there have been defining moments that change the world. A single piece, even a single performance, sends shock waves through the entire art form and suddenly things are never the same. The 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was one such moment.
May 29th, 1913, the Theatre des Champs-Elysee in Paris was brand new and the owner had spared no expense in booking Diaghilev’s ever popular Ballet Russes. There was a sell-out crowd that evening, awaiting a new work from the company and composer who had brought them The Firebird and Petrushka in seasons past.
It has been said that there were two factions of people in the audience that night. The rich, aristocracy in their boxes and the art-loving “Bohemians” below who were ever eager to express their hatred for the tastes and lifestyles of those seated above them.
When the curtain rose that evening, the audience didn’t see the pageantry and folk-tale fantasy they were expecting. Instead, it was an ancient pagan ritual of sacrifice. The dancers were in drab costumes, stomping around the stage to the angular, incessant rhythms of the orchestra.
The reaction to The Rite has been called a riot, one of the most infamous theatrical scandals of all time.
The varying factions of the audience were protesting back and forth, throwing whatever they could find at each other and the orchestra. Around 40 individuals had to be escorted from the theater. The noise became so loud that the dancers were not able to hear the music. At one point, the choreographer, Nijinsky, was shouting counts off stage in an effort to keep the piece together. Through all of the clamor and disruption the work continued without stopping.
After the ballet was done, the audience applauded. There was a curtain call for the lead dancer, Nijinsky and even Stravinsky himself. The composer later stated that he was very pleased with the premiere. He told Nijinsky, “Everything was as I wanted."
The French critics though were ruthless in their condemnation of the work, calling it barbarous and cacophonous. The journalist, Carl Van Vechten, said at one point during the premiere another audience member seated behind him became so overwhelmed that he started hitting Van Vechten in the head to the rhythm of the orchestra before he realized what he was doing.
Despite this riotous premiere, or maybe even because of it, The Rite of Spring has become one of the most influential single works of the 20th century. Fortunately, audiences have become more receptive to the piece’s rhythm, harmony and tone. It has been performed and recorded countless times around the world.