The Ballet Premiere That Caused A Chaotic Riot
When composer Igor Stravinsky began working on The Rite of Spring, he did not know the immense impact his piece would have in music history … or about the chaotic response that its first performance would unleash.
Stravinsky originally had the idea for The Rite of Spring in 1910 while in the middle of working on another piece for the Russian ballet. Stravinsky set the idea aside for a whole year, during which he wrote yet another piece for the manager for the Russian ballet, Sergei Diaghilev. He eventually began his work on Rite in the summer of 1911, secluding himself in a house in Switzerland, and finished the composition by the beginning of 1912. Vaslav Nijinsky, known as one of the best ballet dancers and choreographers at the time, created the accompanying dance to Stravinsky’s ballet, and everything finally seemed to be coming together.
1913 arrived, and as the night of the premiere at the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées in Montaigne, Paris drew near, tensions around the area began to rise. The typical audience in Paris during a ballet show consisted of mostly two groups of people: the wealthy purists, eager to listen to the same structures, order, and tradition within the ballet, and a second group, tired with all that noise and craving something new.
The show began. By the time the first act was done, there were already riots in place and police at the scene. Around 40 people were already arrested. The audience was shocked. Rumors spread of people pulling out their hair, throwing up, getting massive migraines, and even becoming increasingly violent. What caused this madness? There are multiple theories:
The first is that the music itself was so contradicting of every musical rule, the audience’s 1913-era ears simply couldn’t take it. Such avant-garde decisions in classical music had never before been made to that extent, so having everything from experimentations in tonality and rhythm to the dissonance and tension of melody, harmony, and percussion created a battle within the listener’s eardrums, prompting many to freak out. Wrote Stravinsky:
“I was guided by no system whatsoever in Le Sacre du Printemps I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed.”
Another is that the dance, choreographed by Nijinsky, was madly different from traditions, using jerk-like moves instead of steps and stepping heavy compared to the lightness of traditional ballet. To give you an idea: if traditional ballet is so light that it resembles floating upwards, this choreography was so close to the ground it almost crushed the floor below the dancers. Traditionalists in the audience were livid with such violations against the rules of classical ballet.
The final theory as to why people burst into madness is the socio-political context within which The Rite of Spring premiered. For starters, the audience was already pretty divided between traditionalists and experimentalists, both wanting entirely different results from the art they were consuming. In addition to that, there were anti-Russian factions working in Paris, actively trying to stop the performance of the Rite from ever happening. There were even anti-Nijinsky and anti-Diaghilev groups working to stop the show.
It seemed like everything was working against the premiere of The Rite of Spring, but, oddly enough, a year later, a concert version of the piece was performed in Casino de Paris, conducted by the same conductor from the premiere named Mondeux. Stravinsky was praised after that performance and reportedly even carried up amongst the crowd in triumph. Since this was Paris, we assume that he got wine dumped on him instead of the traditional Gatorade.
Top Image: Josep Aznar