It caused a riot on opening night.
Hordes of Parisian ballet goers turned out for the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s newest creation. Already renowned for his two previous ballets, Stravinsky had been commissioned to write a third, and what was written revolutionized the art of ballet. But that came later.
First came the premiere. The booing began during the opening inharmonic bassoon solo, and it only went downhill from there. Imagine sitting down in a theater expecting a symphony and instead getting a hard metal concert. That shock is what this audience experienced in 1913; they sat down in their glittering gowns and sharp suits expecting a graceful, elegant and traditional ballet and instead they got a carnal, primitive and most definitely unconventional show. They were convinced they were hearing what “constituted a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art”. Screaming, complaining and arguing with those around them, this Parisian audience only lasted through half of this thirty-minute ballet before breaking out into a brawl.
So what was so shocking about this ballet? Well from a musical standpoint, there was the monumental size of the orchestra and the use of a battery of percussion instruments to create a barbaric and primeval sound. There were the melodies modeled after Russian folk songs and the use of whole-tone and octatonic scales, polytonality and dissonance. And finally, the most innovative, influential and riot-inducing element of ballet was the interaction between rhythm and meter. In some scenes a steady pulse is set, only to serve as a backdrop for unpredictable accents or melodic entrances. In others, the concept of a regular metric pulse is totally abandoned as downbeats occur almost at random. Trust me guys, this stuff is revolutionary. Bach and Tchaikovsky probably rolled over in their graves. And that was the problem.
Describing the inspiration for this ballet, Stravinsky explained how he “had a fleeting vision… [of] a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death…[a] sacrific[e] to propitiate the God of Spring”. Nothing like this had ever been written before and when it was first presented to the public, no one knew what was happening on the stage and their confused and almost frightened energy was channeled into a riot.
By normative standards, The Rite of Spring is no work of art. In fact, as I mentioned before, it was considered an attack on music as an art form when it first premiered. But when it premiered again a year after than disastrous first showing, it was enthusiastically received and was established as a masterpiece in the world of ballet. It revitalized ballet – the music, the story and the dance. Stravinsky’s score influenced many other 20th century composers, including Debussy who remembers The Rite of Spring haunting him “like a good nightmare”.
By descriptive standards, The Rite of Spring is a true work of art. Controversial, influential and jaw-dropping, it serves as a turning point in music. While maybe not normatively beautiful melodically, nor is the choreography exactly pleasing to the eye in the way Swan Lake would be, I believe that this ballet shows us what all art should aspire to be. The greatest works of art are those which strike a nerve and shock the beholders, and Stravinsky’s masterpiece accomplishes that like no other ballet ever has and maybe ever will. The norm was ignored and while maybe our society will always enjoy watching ballets that don’t include a virgin dancing herself to death, the aesthetic value of this work of art is not to be undervalued.