"It hit the public like a hurricane, like some uncontrolled primeval force".
March 11, 2006 8:38 AM   Subscribe

The Riot of Spring. Théâtre Champs-Elysées, Paris, May 29, 1913. Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Proust, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy are among those present at the premiere of The Rite of Spring (the score is here), written by Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by the great Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. The music and the choreography shocked the audience with its daring modernism, ripping up the rulebook of classical ballet with its heavy, savage movements. Many in the audience promptly booed, then yelled, insulting the performers and each other. Then fistfights broke out. The police was summoned, but was unable to stop an all-out riot.
Now the BBC has made a TV movie about that night. More inside.
posted by matteo (27 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The composer himself recalled the scene in his book Expositions and Developments:
Mild protests against the music could be heard from the very beginning. . . . Then, when the curtain opened . . . the storm broke. I heard [composer and critic] Florent Schmitt shout "Taisez-vous [Shut up!], garces du seizième"; the "garces" of the sixteenth arrondissement were, of course, the most elegant ladies in Paris. The uproar continued, however. . . . I arrived in a fury backstage, where I saw [impresario] Diaghilev flicking the house lights in a last effort to quiet the hall. I stood in the wings behind [choreographer] Nijinsky . . . while he stood on a chair shouting numbers to the dancers.

Roman Vlad in his biography of Stravinsky:
"Looking back at that first performance of 1913, however, one must admit that the reaction of the public, caught off its guard, is not altogether surprising. No one had ever heard music like it before; it seemed to violate all the most hallowed concepts of beauty, harmony, tone, and expression. Never had an audience heard music so brutal, savage, aggressive, and apperently chaotic; it hit the public like a hurricane, like some uncontrolled primeval force. The Rite of Spring is the very antithesis of all those saccharine 'Springs' one had come to expect from every musician, painter, and writer under the sun. Here is spring seen from within, from the very bowels of the pregnant earth, which writes in the pages of labour and gives birth to dark tellurian forces...

From "Stravinsky; His Life and Works"


Lenny's Rite Of Spring
posted by matteo at 8:43 AM on March 11, 2006

Damn. I was planning on doing this someday.
posted by sourwookie at 8:44 AM on March 11, 2006

Fantastic post.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:46 AM on March 11, 2006

rioting at a Stravinsky performance?
posted by matteo at 8:46 AM on March 11, 2006

anyway: the performance mad a huge impression, among others, on Cocteau, who called it a "revelation" of a new art form:

"Le Sacre du Printemps" était pour moi la révélation d'une forme d'art opposée aux habitudes et anticonformiste".


Good French-language link on the "Sacre" here


poor Stravinsky, unsurprisingly, had a breakdown after the première
and spent weeks at a sanatorium in Neuilly to recover from typhoid fever. Le Sacre was staged in London that July and coldly received, albeit undisturbed. Negative reactions would still come ten years later, when Monteaux conducted Le Sacre with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1924. Yet as modernism slowly sank into western culture and the realities of grand-scale warfare emerged, Le Sacre became recognized for its contribution to the modern artistic temperament.

Le Sacre appeared to have found its rightful owner when Martha Graham staged her interpretation in 1930, but the music was already being acclaimed for its genius. Where painting has Picasso and poetry has T.S. Eliot, music has Stravinsky. Le Sacre is not merely a caricature of primitive man; it is also an evocation of modern impulse, an episode in the hysterical, disordered mindset of human beings.
Who wrote this fiendish Rite of Spring,
What right had he to write the thing,
Against our helpless ears to fling
Its crash, cling, clang, bing, bang, being?

And then to call it 'Rite of Spring'
The season when on joyous wing
The birds harmony's in everything!

He who would write the Rite of Spring
If I be right, by right should swing!
- Boston Herald, after local premiere
posted by matteo at 8:55 AM on March 11, 2006

this is awesome. I had no idea that a riot had started. I bet it was that damned Proust. He was a real rough and tumble sort.
posted by shmegegge at 9:20 AM on March 11, 2006

NPR's Milestones of the Millennium has an episode discussing the Rite of Spring. You can hear Stravinsky, himself, talk about the work.
posted by horsewithnoname at 9:29 AM on March 11, 2006

Stravinsky, inventor of the mosh pit.
posted by dirigibleman at 9:36 AM on March 11, 2006

I have to go do some work, so don't have time to find a source--but IIRC from my music history classes, it was presented as a concert work (at Monteaux's suggestion) a year later in Paris, and that performance was quite successful. To wit:

So much has been written about the notorious scandal of May 29, 1913, the scandal of the reception of the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du Printemps, that it is easy to forget that the music itself was less the cause of the riotous activities than the subject, the décor, and the dancing.

matteo, have you found anything about that? I remember a story about the crowd cheering Stravinsky and carrying him out into the street or something....

Also, I'll try to find Monteaux's story about the first time he met Stravinsky, and heard the work--this "strange Russian" at the piano, grunting, sweating, and banging away. Very funny.

Great post!
posted by LooseFilter at 9:41 AM on March 11, 2006

Nijinsky . . . while he stood on a chair shouting numbers to the dancers

This complex and unprecedented piece was most likely under-rehearsed and poorly performed. Without the benefit of the performances we are all now familiar with, I'll bet it was a sloppy mess of noise. Classical musicians can be as passive aggressive as anyone else faced with something they don't understand or approve of.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:41 AM on March 11, 2006

Wow, wonderful post matteo. Thank you. It's always amazing to me to think that a performance of Stravinsky's music could set off a riot. Amazing. Thanks again.
posted by sleepy pete at 9:42 AM on March 11, 2006

I had always wondered where the band rites of spring got its name. seems in line with the history. Sweet!
posted by proof_nc at 9:50 AM on March 11, 2006

Tonight, at 21.00.15 on BBC2, I shall be putting this out: Riot at the Rite! Tune in.
posted by Huw at 9:55 AM on March 11, 2006

In high school, my favorite teacher was the head of the jazz band (in which I played bari sax) and orchestra. At one of our combined concerts, the orchestra was scheduled to play the "Rites of Spring." Prior to the curtain going up, he had salted the members of the jazz band throughout the audience. We were instructed to stand up and start booing about a minute into the performance, so that he could stop the piece and tell the audience, mostly pretty surprised parents, about its history. I still remember that night nearly 25 years later -- just one of a dozen reasons he was the best.

(First post.)
posted by hawkeye at 10:02 AM on March 11, 2006

Hawkeye, that was a very cool teacher. (And dirigibleman, that was funny.)

Great post, Matteo!
posted by mkhall at 10:27 AM on March 11, 2006

This complex and unprecedented piece was most likely under-rehearsed and poorly performed. Without

Stravinsky himself in his Autobiography (a very interesting book, by the way mentions "the great number of rehearsals" that "Monteux had conducted with his usual skill and attention". but it is true that sometimes immortal works suffer from a badly-prepared premiere -- Beethoven's Ninth comes to mind as a sublime example (the maestro had paid for everything in advance out of his own not-so-deep pocket)

I remember a story about the crowd cheering Stravinsky and carrying him out into the street or something

In the Autobiography -- written 20 years after the fact -- Stravinsky writes about the reaction of the crowd during the show, and describes Nijinsky's and Diaghilev's actions. and then adds, "that is all I can remember about the premiere".

and hawkeye, that is awesome, thanks for your story.
(I find dirigibleman's comment very funny, too: Le Sacre and Salome are my goto example when people complain about classical music being staid or boring -- half-naked Salome fondling and kissing that severed, blood-dripping head, finally reaching that elusive orgasm, is not exactly staid -- nor is it boring).
posted by matteo at 10:31 AM on March 11, 2006

I just have to toss in that Matteo is abosolutely right in linking to that Leonard Bernstein album. That is far and away the best performance of the Rite that I've ever heard. (and if the only version you know is on Fantasia, you simply MUST pick it up)
posted by InnocentBystander at 10:43 AM on March 11, 2006

Unfortunately, the Joffrey Ballet's staging of the reconstructed Rite doesn't appear to be available commercially, although it was televised on PBS several years ago. Even though decades have passed since its premiere, the ballet still doesn't look quite like anything else.
posted by thomas j wise at 11:15 AM on March 11, 2006

Succès de scandale, a fine French tradition. What a wonderful post, matteo! *hugs*

Here are some pictures of the racy costumes and a semi-translation of a German account with images of the set and costumes.
posted by madamjujujive at 11:16 AM on March 11, 2006

and if the only version you know is on Fantasia, you simply MUST pick it up

The harmonies were changed on the Fantasia version to make it less scary for children.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:46 AM on March 11, 2006

thomas j wise, the article says that the programme will have a solid half hour devoted to dance (i hope this comes out on dvd)...

also what i find wonderful also from the article:

While the Finns [The Finnish National Ballet] filmed their dance, the crew cat-called, booed and whistled to give the dancers some idea of what their predecessors faced. "You could see on their faces a combination of fear and a determination to keep going. It was magical," says Snodin.

i will forever be indebted to Stravinsky's daring of Le Sacre du Printemps, as it apparently was responsible (in addition to L'oiseau de feu and Petrouchka) for the brilliant dissonance and collision behind his opera Le Rossignol.
posted by naxosaxur at 11:57 AM on March 11, 2006


on a sidenote, Giulini's version kicks ass, and you get 4 cds for 23.98 bucks
posted by matteo at 12:10 PM on March 11, 2006

under-rehearsed and poorly performed.

matteo: Stravinsky ... mentions "the great number of rehearsals" that "Monteux had conducted with his usual skill and attention"

Sounds like maybe Stravinsky wants us to know that it was just poorly performed.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:40 PM on March 11, 2006

BBC: Étonne-moi!
If this is a hit, wonder who'll be in the inevitable American remake?
posted by rob511 at 4:20 PM on March 11, 2006

it is true that sometimes immortal works suffer from a badly-prepared premiere -- Beethoven's Ninth comes to mind as a sublime example

Yes, that's true of even less-than-immortal works. Most classical-music liner-notes readers know the famous story of the premiere of Rachmaninoff's First Symphony, so poorly performed and viciously attacked by the critics that Rachmaninoff went into a years-long, depressed dry spell, from which he emerged triumphantly to write his crowd-pleasing Second Piano Concerto. But few of these folks have heard the piece in question.

I enjoy the lyricism of his second symphony OK (used to absolutely adore it) but now I think his first is really his best symphony. He was doing pretty cool and even daring things with comprehensive motivic development (essentially deriving the whole symphony out of one theme) that Sibelius would go on to do so brilliantly in his second symphony a few years later.

In short, it's no Rite of Spring, it's probably not even his own best work, but if you haven't heard it, check out Rachmaninoff's first symphony.
posted by soyjoy at 7:31 PM on March 11, 2006

There's a Chicago band called the Butchershop Quartet that performs an arrangement of the Rite of Spring for two electric guitars, electric bass, and drumkit.

It's fairly awesome.
posted by kenko at 8:31 PM on March 11, 2006

Actually Gergiev/kirov orchestra's recording of the rite of spring pisses on most other versions from a great height. I fondly remember playing it at full blast when I worked in the classical section of a music shop one time.

I watched the BBC programme, and the reaction of the crowd was less intense than I'd imagined it. When someone said it was a riot, I had at least expected damage being done to the auditorium.
posted by leibniz at 3:50 AM on March 12, 2006

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