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Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' celebrates 100 years

| Tuesday, May 28, 2013, 7:51 p.m.
Reissue of Leonard Bernstein’s “Rite of Spring” with the New York Philharmonic, which uses the original cover art
Reissue of Leonard Bernstein’s “Rite of Spring” with the New York Philharmonic, which uses the original cover art

For a century now, composers have envied the notoriety Igor Stravinsky achieved at the riotous world premiere of his ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Spring) on May 29, 1913. at the Theatre de Champs-Elysees in Paris.

Riotous is not a metaphoric term in this instance. Composer Darius Milhaud, 20 at the time, stood up, applauding, and was immediately punched in the face. The tumult was so widespread that, reportedly, the music couldn't be heard at times.

Police were called in to restore order. The conductor, Pierre Monteux, was unflappable, and the Ballets Russe dancers somehow completed the performance.

Adventurous composers have taken comfort from the perspective that Stravinsky's radical score, now long recognized as a masterpiece that redefined musical possibilities, was so misunderstood. “The Rite of Spring” frequently has been invoked over the decades since its premiere as the kind of jolt new music needs.

The idea for this ballet came to Stravinsky as he was completing “The Firebird” in 1910. “I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: wise elders seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propritiate the god of spring,” he later wrote.

Stravinsky worked up the full scenario with his friend Nicholas Roerich, a painter and archeologist. The ballet is in 14 scenes, divided into two parts lasting altogether a little more than a half-hour.

Much, and likely, most, of the anger at the premiere was directed at the choreography and costumes. The intentional primitivism of the subject and the way it was realized was felt by many of the offended to be a “crime against grace.” This reaction was only heightened by the fact that, at its premiere, “The Rite of Spring” followed “Les Sylphides,” set to music by Frederic Chopin.

An additional problem at the premiere was Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography. Stravinsky's wild music is rhythmically challenging. Dancers don't count time the way musicians do. The system devised by Nijinsky was confusing, and dancers complained rehearsals were like arithmetic lessons.

At the premiere, there was laughter at the costumes and the writhing of the dancers on the stage floor during the slow first section. When the ballet's action became more agitated in the “Dance of the Adolescents,” so did the adults in the audience — both negatively and positively.

While the audience's reactions at the premiere can't be neatly divided between visual and musical elements, when Monteux conducted the first concert performance in Paris of “The Rite of Spring” on Feb. 18, 1914, it was a great success.

Stravinsky was an intelligent and fastidious composer; yet, he famously said he was “the vessel through which “Sacre” passed.” He said he could play the finale section of the ballet, the “Danse Sacrale” which is marked by shifting meters, at the piano but did not know how to notate it. No wonder the dancers had such problems. In fact, Stravinsky rewrote the music several times after the premiere.

Harmonically, Stravinsky did not adopt 12-tone technique until the 1950s. But although staunchly tonal until then, “The Rite of Spring” is sometimes chromatic, following up on harmonic ideas Stravinsky had used in the short choral piece “Zvezdoliki” (The King of the Stars). At other times, the music is very simple, with diatonic melodies made of up just a handful of notes.

The music is also highly colorful, using a large orchestra with a totally emancipated percussion section.

If the energy and violence of “The Rite of Spring” were unprecedented, they reflect one of the composer's strongest emotions. He was the son of one of the leading singers of the Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg, Russia, which provided him with entrée to the world of music at the highest level. He even met Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. His later ballet “Le Baiser de la fee” (The Fairy's Kiss) is his affectionate tribute to Tchaikovsky.

But for “The Rite of Spring” Stravinsky drew upon a primal stimulus unrelated to the artistic world in which he lived.

He later told his friend and musical colleague Robert Craft, “The violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking — that was the most wonderful event of every year of my childhood.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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