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No Riots But Plenty Of Reaction To Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring

Public Domain / Wikipedia

Igor Stravinsky as drawn by Pablo Picasso (dated 31 December 1920). Published in France in May 1921 in the program for the 14th season of the Ballets Russes at the Théâtre de la Gaîté-Lyrique in Paris.

Public Domain / Wikipedia

To mark the birthday anniversary of composer Igor Stravinsky (b. June 17, 1882) classical host Cale Wiggins sets the record straight about riots and The Rite.  Stravinsky's monumental work will be featured on Capital Public Radio Wednesday at 2:25 p.m.

Listen to the full-length docmentary Spring Fever: 100 Years of “The Rite of Spring,” produced by Cale Wiggins in 2013

Romantic fictions die hard in Classical music. Take, for instance, the mistaken notion that there was a riot at the 1913 premiere of the Ballets Russe production of The Rite of Spring. It’s a demonstrable falsehood that holds on with the tenacity of kudzu vine.

Sure, there were a number of well-dressed idiots trading blows, and there truly was an uproar—at one point, Nijinsky, the work’s choreographer, had to yell out the dance step numbers from the wings, for fear that the dancers were unable to hear the orchestra over the din of protest and counter-protest—but raised voices and a few slaps do not a riot make.

This is Paris we’re talking about; a city that knows from riots. There were no paving stones uprooted, no barricades erected, no conflagration…at worst we’re talking about a “hullabaloo.” The fact of the matter is that following the eviction of some forty of the most disruptive patrons, the audience calmed down for the second half of the Rite, and there were curtain calls for the dancers, composer and choreographer. Riots, typically speaking, do not conclude with extended applause.

Even now, more than a hundred years after the incident, it’s still an open question as to what caused the uproar. The music itself is an unlikely candidate. Stravinsky’s music was, for sure, revolutionary, but it was still a natural progression from what came before.  Despite Stravinsky’s claims to the contrary, there is more than enough evidence to prove that he used at least a handful of Lithuanian folk melodies.  Incorporating folk melodies into compositions was a standard practice for the day. The composer did alter the melody slightly by backing it with a transposed version of itself, creating a haunting and dissonant bitonal effect, using two melodies that when played on their own are both perfectly tonic. Even this was not entirely new. Stravinsky had deployed the same technique, to a lesser extent, in his earlier ballet Petrushka, an unqualified success with the same Parisian crowd. The most jarring aspect of the music for the Rite was, arguably, its rhythmic structure, where Stravinsky stressed beats in a way that was extremely unorthodox at the time.  Still, within a year of the premiere, the music from The Rite of Spring was being programmed to thunderous applause at numerous European houses. 

The uproar probably had more to do with the state of French society than the music. The French were still working out the animus between two strains of French history: nobility and republicanism (before you judge the French royalists too harshly for their refusal to accept defeat, think about how many Americans still can’t let go of the Civil War). Here is how Jean Cocteau summed up the competing personal agendas of the audience at the Theatre de Champs-Elysees:

“The smart audience in tails and tulle, diamonds and ospreys, was interspersed with the suits and bandeaux of the aesthetic crowd. The latter would applaud novelty simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes… Innumerable shades of snobbery, super-snobbery and inverted snobbery were represented.”

So, the arguments may have simply been the chosen ground upon which the bohemians and “bitches of the 16th arrondissement,” as one bohemian minded attendee referred to the haut monde, chose to project their animus towards each other. Yep.  That sounds like people.

The most likely culprit, if we must narrow the field to one, is the choreography for the ballet, created by Vaslav Nijinsky.  Nijinsky makes an easy target for blame, for reasons that will become clear.  He was widely hailed as one of the era’s greatest male dancers and in 1912 rose to choreographic prominence with his routine for Debussy’s Prelude to an Afternoon with the Faun, which was controversial for its openly suggestive sexuality. That was “good” controversy; titillating and alluring. The reaction to his choreography for the Rite had no such silver lining.

Nijinsky had been inspired by Ancient Egyptian figurative painting -- two-dimensional pictures of people with heads, hands and feet all pointing jauntily to one side -- during a museum trip with Ballets Russe impresario, Sergei Diaghilev.  However mighty one’s creative power may be, it is a superhuman task to turn pointy, blocky, symbolic figures into the synthesis of grace and power that ballet demands, and Nijinsky proved all too human. 

Sergei Diaghilev had already conditioned Parisians to expect controversy from his Ballets Russe, upping the ante with each new production. Scandal was his intent and leading up to the Rite’s premier, he had been baiting the Parisian press with bombastic promises of Russian paganism.  It seems that the audience expected this paganism to express itself in the costumes and sets—maybe, even the music—but the choreography was just too much.  It was variously described as blocky, awkward, jagged, the work of a mad man, and many more descriptors that were less kind and restrained. If one strips ballet of its most essential aspects, all of its accepted form and tradition, is it still even ballet?  How far could the form be altered before it became a kind of mockery?

After viewing a full rehearsal of the ballet, critic Adolphe Boschot expressed concern that the audience may react badly if they thought they were being mocked.  This may not have been as prescient as it appears from this distance.  Assumption of mockery was a pretty predictable response of the Parisian upper crust when faced with something they couldn’t comprehend, and what followed was great umbrage.  This self-serious response from the stuffed shirts was enough to convince the anti-stuffed shirt contingency that the production was the highest art ever produced by man, and things devolved from there. 

Biased though he may have been, Stravinsky unreservedly blamed Nijinsky’s choreography for the negative reaction, and as time has passed, so have a preponderance of scholars.  This is a difficult argument to counter, considering that the stench of failure quickly faded from every other aspect of the production.  In April of 1914, Stravinsky was carried off in triumph on the shoulders of admirers following a concert performance of the Rite of Spring in Paris.  Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe was similarly unaffected, and, in fact, counted the initial production a success. 

They would continue to astound until Diaghilev’s death in 1929 (and lived on as the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo after).  When the company produced a revival of the Rite in 1920, Diaghilev discovered that no one remembered the original choreography (it would not be danced again until a reconstruction in the 1980’s).  Leonide Massine, the company’s choreographer at the time, was tasked with creating an entirely new work.  To paraphrase Hamlet: the blocky dance is the thing, through which the Russe progressed to Massine.

While being factually defensible, blaming Nijinsky feels a bit like a turkey shoot as he wound up in no position to defend himself.  Following the Rite, he had a personal falling out with Diaghilev.  The Ballets Russe was the world’s only forward-thinking company at the time, and Nijinsky, a forward-thinking choreographer if nothing else, found himself out of avenues for employment.  His situation worsened for a number of years until he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919.  He would spend the last 30 years of his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals and never again danced in public.  History is written by survivors, not just winners, and sometimes, they amount to the same thing.  If you still feel like piling on, blame Nijinsky for whatever it was that went down on that infamous night in May of 1913, when the Ballets Russe performed Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  But please don’t call it a riot.

Cale Wiggins

Classical Content Coordinator and Host

Cale started his career as an on-air personality in 1997. He discovered his love of classical music through listening to NPR as a child and has been exploring the genre ever since.   Read Full Bio 

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