The Rite of Spring 1913: Why did it provoke a riot?
The Rite of Spring caused an outrage on its premiere in Paris a century ago. But was it the music or the dance?
By Ivan Hewett,
It was 100 years ago that the most famous scandal in the history of the arts took place, at a swanky new theatre in Paris. Anyone who was anyone was there. The cosmopolitan German aristocrat Count Harry Kessler said that “it was the most dazzling house I’ve ever seen in Paris”. 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… Innumerable shades of snobbery, super-snobbery and inverted snobbery were represented.”
What drew them on the night of May 29 1913 was the whiff of something potentially outrageous: a brand-new ballet from the Ballets Russes, which had entranced and shocked Paris ever since their first appearance there in 1909. What gave the event an extra frisson was that this Rite of Spring was the product of the most savage of all these so-called “Northern savages”.
Igor Stravinsky, the composer, had scored a massive hit the previous year with Petrushka, which added an exciting element of modernist collage to colourful Russian folklore. Vaslav Nijinsky, the choreographer, 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.
Stravinsky was hoping the new ballet would be an even bigger hit than Petrushka. “From all indications I can see that this piece is bound to 'emerge’ in a way that rarely happens,” he wrote gleefully to Nicholas Roerich, who was the guiding spirit behind the ballet’s vision of pagan Russia. It’s a fair bet that Diaghilev, the great entrepreneur behind the Ballets Russes, was hoping for something more than an emergence. He wanted a scandal.
And he got one, though what actually happened that night is something of a mystery. The dancer Dame Marie Rambert remembered that “a shout went up in the gallery: 'Un docteur!’. Somebody else shouted louder, 'Un dentiste!’” Kessler said that people started to whisper and joke almost immediately. The conductor of the premiere, Pierre Monteux, was told by one of his double-bass players that “many a gentleman’s shiny top hat or soft fedora was ignominiously pulled down by an opponent over his eyes and ears, and canes were brandished like menacing implements of combat all over the theatre.”
These are just a few of dozens of eyewitness reports. As the musicologist Richard Taruskin points out, the Rite is the most over-documented premiere in history, and yet so many things are obscure. 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?
There were certainly plenty of good reasons for outrage, starting with the high, almost strangled bassoon melody that begins the work, soon draped with fluttering, twittering woodwind sounds.
It’s often said that the pulsating rhythms of the Rite of Spring are what caused the outrage, but pulsating rhythms at least have an appeal at a visceral level (an appeal certainly felt at the Rite’s premiere, where according to one eye witness one excited onlooker beat out the rhythms on the bald pate of the man in front). It’s more likely that the audience was appalled and disbelieving at the level of dissonance, which seemed to many like sheer perversity. “The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect,” wrote one exasperated critic.
At a deeper level, the music negates the very thing that for most people gives it meaning: the expression of human feelings. 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.
There’s no sign that any of the creatures in the Rite of Spring has 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.
Which brings us to the other great innovator of that long-ago premiere, Vaslav Nijinsky. This strange young man, with his oddly shaped body and strange naive air (“One became aware of strange absences in his personality,” said Stravinsky) created something as epoch-making in dance as Stravinsky’s score was in music. Whereas classical dance aspired upwards, in defiance of gravity, Nijinsky’s dancers seemed pulled down to the earth. Their strange, jerky movements and awkward poses defied every canon of gracefulness.
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 realized they were witnessing something deeply original, rather than merely shocking. The French writer Jacques Rivière observed that “there is something profoundly blind about this dance. 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 theater full of Parisian sophisticates, is quite another. Perhaps the riot 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 would soon break out, that feeling wasn’t so wide of the mark.