The riot at the Rite: the premiere of The Rite of Spring
The premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is perhaps the most famous scandal in the history of the performing arts. It took place on the evening of 29 May 1913, at the brand-new Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, in front of a glittering audience. The writer Jean Cocteau wrote that ‘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’.
What drew both the swanky crowd and art-loving crowd was the whiff of something potentially outrageous: a brand-new ballet from the Ballets Russes, a company of Russian dancers put together by the most famous impresario in history, Serge Diaghilev. The Ballets Russes had entranced and shocked Paris ever since their first appearance there in 1909. What the Parisians especially liked was the way these ‘Northern Savages’ (as one critic called the company) played to the fashion for everything primitive and untamed. All the rumours about The Rite of Spring suggested this new ballet would be more than usually primitive.
Igor Stravinsky, the composer, had scored a massive hit the previous year with Petrushka, a ballet in which three puppets enact a story of love and jealousy. This added an exciting element of modernist collage to colourful Russian folklore. Vaslav Nijinsky, the famous dancer who was also the choreographer of The Rite, had caused a minor scandal a few months previously with his blatantly erotic portrayal of the lovesick faun in Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un Faune.
What actually happened on that scandalous night will always be a mystery to some degree, because the reports contradict each other. Was it the choreography that annoyed people, or the music? Were the police really called? Was it true that missiles were thrown, and challenges to a duel offered? Were the creators booed at the end, or cheered? The dancer Dame Marie Rambert remembered that right at the beginning ‘a shout went up in the gallery: “Un docteur!" (Call a doctor!). Somebody else shouted louder, “Un dentiste!" (a dentist!)’ The aristocrat Harry Kessler said that people started to whisper and joke almost immediately. Stravinsky himself was so angry that he stormed out and went backstage to help the dancers keep time.
What is certain is that the audience was shocked – and with good reason. Stravinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring contradicted every rule about what music should be. The sounds are often deliberately harsh, right from opening Lithuanian folk melody, which is played by the bassoon in its highest, most uncomfortable range. The music was cacophonously loud, assaulting the ears with thunderous percussion and shrieking brass. Rhythmically it was complex in a completely unprecedented way. In the ‘Ritual of the Rival Tribes’ the music unfolds in two speeds at once, in a ratio of 3:2. And it makes lavish use of dissonance, i.e. combinations of notes which don’t make normal harmonic sense. ‘The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect,’ wrote one exasperated critic.
Then there was the dance, choreographed by Nijinsky. According to some observers this was what really caused the scandal at the first night. When the curtain rose the audience saw a row of ‘knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down’ as Stravinsky called them, who seemed to jerk rather than dance. Classical dance aspired upwards, in defiance of gravity, whereas Nijinsky’s dancers seemed pulled down to the earth. Their strange, stamping movements and awkward poses defied every canon of gracefulness.
Both the music and the dance of The Rite of Spring seemed to deny the possibility of human feelings, which for most people is what gives art its meaning. As Stravinsky put it, ‘there are simply no regions for soul-searching in The Rite of Spring’. This is what separates it so decisively from Stravinsky’s hit of 1911, Petrushka. There we’re immersed in a human world, which exudes the very specific cultural ambience of Russia. It’s true that the main characters are puppets, rather than rounded human beings. But they have characters, even if they’re somewhat rudimentary, and at the end there’s even a suggestion that Petrushka might have a soul.
Photograph of a scene from The Rite of Spring, 1913
Now recognised as one the most significant musical masterpieces of the 20th century, Stravinsky’s ballet, Rite of Spring, caused a storm when it premiered at the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris in 1913.View images from this item (1)
In contrast, there’s no sign that any of the creatures in The Rite of Spring have a soul, and there’s certainly no sense of a recognisable human culture. The dancers are like automata, whose only role is to enact the ritual laid down by immemorial custom. An iron necessity rules everything: there has to be a game of Rival Tribes, there has to be Dance of the Young Girls, and an elder has to bless the earth. And finally, a young girl has to be chosen and then abandoned to her fate, which is to dance herself to death.
Given all this, it’s no surprise there was a scandal. And yet, among the shouting and hissing, there were one or two sensitive observers who realised they were witnessing something deeply original, rather than merely shocking. The American (later British) poet T S Eliot realised that what made the music of the Rite original was its puzzling combination of the primitive and the modern. He felt that Stravinsky’s music seemed to transform ‘the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and the other barbaric cries of modern life; and to transform these despairing noises into music’.
As for the dance, its primitivism was deeply disturbing to many, including the French writer Jacques Rivière. ‘There is something profoundly blind about this dance,’ he wrote after the premiere, and went on:
There is an enormous question being carried about by all these creatures moving before our eyes. It is in no way distinct from themselves. They carry it about with them without understanding it, like an animal that turns in its cage and never tires of butting its head against the bars.
To be reminded of that brute animal unconsciousness at the zoo is one thing; to have it enacted by a troupe of highly trained dancers and musicians, in a theatre full of Parisian sophisticates, is quite another. Perhaps the uproar at the premiere was a sign of disquiet, a feeling that the world had lost its moorings, and that barbarism was about to be let loose in the streets. Given that the First World War would soon break out, that feeling wasn’t so wide of the mark.
 Jean Cocteau, 'Cock and Harlequin', trans. Rollo H. Myers (London: Egoist Press, 1921), quoted in Richard Buckle, Nijinsky: A Life of Genius and Madness (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1971), p. 300.
 Quoted in Eric Walter White, Stravinsky: The Composer and his Works (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), p. 177.
 Harry Kessler, Towards the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918 (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2011), p. 619.
 Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Expositions and Developments (London: Faber & Faber, 1959), p. 143.
 Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Dialogues and a Diary (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 90.
 Thomas Stearns Eliot, ‘London Letter’ in The Dial, 71, October 1921, pp. 452–5.
 Jacques Rivière, ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’, Nouvelle Revue Francaise, November 1913, quoted in Ferdinand Lesure (ed.) Igor Stravinsky: “Le Sacre du Printemps”: Dossier de Presse (Geneva: Editions Minkoff, 1980), p. 299.
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© Ivan Hewitt