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The Rite of Spring – Kristina

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.



6 thoughts on “The Rite of Spring – Kristina

  1. As I stressed today, by modern standards I do not this this would be considered a ballet (from what you’ve told me and the video). However, as you pointed out, contemporary wasn’t really a concrete class of dance in the early 20th century.

    While the ballet did not adhere to the traditional musical and corporal harmony of a typical piece in that art form, I did not find it displeasing to watch or listen to. The opening scene was dramatic, not distasteful, and I could immediately understand why Debussy described the Rite of Spring as ” ‘a good nightmare.’ ”

    Now, I really want to see the full length ballet performed!

    Posted by msbethechange | January 15, 2013, 6:21 am
  2. Thanks for this illuminating intro to a work of art that (literally) shook the streets of Paris. The Rite of Spring is such an excellent example of the power of art to literally transform an audience’s realm of experience, and the documents that survive to capture the reactions of the first performances of the ballet are riveting in part because it is difficult to conceive of a modern audience rioting over a piece of music (arguably, our hockey riots are less distinguished affairs). I linked to this podcast on Iris’ post as well, but I think the musical trail broken by Stavinsky’s Rite is an interesting example of music’s capacity to drive the evolution of the human species: check out Radiolab’s “Musical Language:” http://www.radiolab.org/2007/sep/24/

    Posted by bryanjack | January 17, 2013, 4:12 am
  3. Fantastic. Just fantastic.

    Before I watched the video, I made sure to read the entirety of the post – your description was perfect. It sounded exactly as I expected, based on what you described it as. So kudos to you.

    Based on the comments above, there is a question that formulated in my mind. Acts like this one are often the trailblazer for a new era of art to emerge. In a theoretical sense, I could say that any art today (no matter how unacceptable, obscene, or crazy we may see it as today), should be accepted, on the basis that they could be ‘the future of art’.

    Now, I know that sounds crazy, but isn’t that how we have progressed in the world of art? Something complete absurd in one era may become the norm in another. This leads to the question: why should we stifle potential ‘masterpieces’ of art that we create today?

    I hope that makes sense (it sounded clearer in my head).

    Just some food for thought.

    Posted by JonathanToews | January 17, 2013, 5:25 am
  4. Jen – so I cracked open my music history textbook for the first time in over a year because I wanted to know the definition of ballet as defined by this source. Ballet: a dance form featuring a staged presentation of group or solo dancing with music, costumes, and scenery. So by this definition, Rite of Spring is and always will be a ballet, but it’s our preconceived notions of what ballet is that makes us think Rite can’t be considered a ballet. The dancing in Rite is definitely more of a modern dance style then ballet dance would be, but it is still a ballet if we stick to the definition provided by my textbook. Let’s call it contemporary ballet!

    I’m listening to that podcast right now, it’s very interesting. I have had sentences or phrases stuck in my head, and soon I ended up singing them to a tune and while I was ready to scream out of annoyance, I never really thought about that phenomenon. It’s quite cool to think there’s music all around us in that respect. I’m not very far into the podcast yet but it’s definitely interesting so far. I can’t wait to hear what they have to say about Rite.

    Thanks Jonathan! And actually that doesn’t seem too crazy to me at all, it actually makes sense. All the most revolutionary pieces of art, whether they be music, visual or literary, were considered absurd. It took another audience or even another generation to truly accept the art, understand the point and be influenced by it enough to create their own art in the style of that artist. But what do you mean by stifling potential masterpieces? Do we do that? There’s sure enough crazy art in galleries right now (I’m not sure I can understand the aesthetic value of plain white or totally black canvases) so we sure aren’t stifling the weird and odd. I can see how that question may have applied to earlier centuries, when the new and different was attacked and shunned but I’m not sure if we are so un-accepting of the new and different anymore.

    Posted by kapitza17 | January 17, 2013, 6:16 am
  5. Just for the fun of it, let’s throw in another definition. World Book defines a ballet as “An individual work or performance [that] features ballet dancing,” and ballet as “a form of theatrical dance that uses formal, set movements and poses characterized by elegance and grace.” In other words, quite the opposite of Rite of Spring.

    Hence, I think we just reproved the centuries-old point that language is really vague and open to interpretation. But I did like your point about our preconceived notions of an art form.

    Posted by Jennifer | January 17, 2013, 6:33 am
  6. Language and dance are alike – our interpretations of each are affected by our preconceived notions (and the definition we use), as with everything in life.

    Posted by kapitza17 | January 17, 2013, 6:44 am

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