On May 29, 1913, the premiere of The Rite of Spring was infamously met with a cacophony of boos, hisses and jeers from the audience.
As the story of almost mythic proportion goes, the reaction was not unwarranted. A young Igor Stravinsky had composed a score that was on the edges of rhythmic and harmonic comprehension, and Vaslav Nijinsky had illustrated the music with writhing choreography for the dancers of the Ballets Russes.
Gone were the elegant lines of the Romantic ballerina, replaced with unnerving angles of hunched backs and sickled feet. The graceful Tchaikovskian swells of the orchestra gave way to Stravinsky’s dissonant polytonalities, pulsing to an unpredictably accented and primal rhythm.
There seemed to be plenty of fuel for the fights that broke out in the audience on the unseasonably warm spring night that the Rite was first experienced.
Now, more than a century later, audiences enjoy the Rite without coming even close to blows. Can we, as listeners, feel the same emotional intensity when we hear the work today that audiences felt in that Paris theater over a hundred years ago?
Companies that perform the work today, perhaps in the spirit of maintaining the original shock value, have upped the ante on a number of visual levels. At the heart of the Nashville Ballet’s 2012 performance was beautifully visceral choreography , and the costumes—particularly those on the male dancers—appeared to have taken a few notes from the BDSM community. A quick Google search reveals that some companies have chosen to forgo costumes altogether.
If the intention of the Nashville Ballet was to shock, they were at least somewhat successful. As an audience member, I always carry a pair of binoculars for the times when I can’t snag a seat closer than the nosebleed section. At this particular performance, though, I kept them firmly in my bag for fear of looking like a morally questionable voyeur.
The Nashville Symphony will perform the Rite Feb. 23-25, and has the added of challenge of playing the work without dancers. Certainly Stravinsky’s music is enough to stand on its own. But will audiences be able to grasp the revolutionary history of the work? Will they feel emotionally moved the way those first audiences were, particularly without the arresting movement meant to accompany it?
Perhaps trying to invoke the spirit of the premiere isn’t the point—maybe it’s enough just to hear a great performance of a musical work that’s been celebrated for the last century.
And perhaps, as Alex Ross suggests in his marvelous work on twentieth century music, The Rest is Noise, it wasn’t only the music and movement that got audiences so riled up in 1913.
As Ross notes, the audience for the premiere of the Rite was primed for a scandal. Rumors were swirling about the new work from Stravinsky and Najinsky, which was set to debut just a few months after Schoenberg shocked audiences to the point of riot in Vienna with his bold expressionism. Najinsky himself was no stranger to controversy; his sensual Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun” had upset audiences during the previous season. The riot at the Rite, then, seemed to be less novel and more par for the course for an evening Parisian affair.
The upper class were among the first to begin to heckle the performers, moments into the premiere. The music and art aficionados in the standing room below hurled slurs at the bourgeoisie seated in the boxes above them. The performance had quickly become a backdrop for some bubbling class warfare.
Even deeper in Stravinsky’s score are the anxieties of modernity.
Ross paints the picture of professedly modern societies that were, at the turn on the century, “singling out scapegoats on whom the ills of modernity could be blamed.” He cites the Russian pogroms of Jews, the lynching of black men in the American South, and next door to the Rite premiere, the residents of the sixteenth arrondissement that led the anti-Semitic campaign against Jewish patriot Alfred Dreyfus. The same month that the Rite premiered, a young and artistically inclined Adolf Hitler moved from Austria to Germany. The world stage was being set for two great wars, and with the Rite, Stravinsky was scoring a restless prelude.
The classic riot story isn’t all wrong. There is something inherently unsettling and exciting about Stravinsky’s music; the jarring rhythms and dissonant harmonies can be unnerving even by today's standards. But audiences were also coming into the 1913 premiere on edge and with an immense amount of cultural baggage.
While today's concertgoers may not be shocked by the piece in the same way as audiences a century ago, the modern baggage carried into performance spaces is just as heavy. It only takes a quick scroll through Facebook or a few minutes of the nightly news to know that this moment is also fraught, weighted with questions about politics, race, gender, class, patriotism and countless other issues—issues not far removed from those of the riotous audiences of Stravinsky’s era.
The gift of music, and of great art like The Rite of Spring, is that it can make us more keenly aware of not only the beauty in life, but also the darkness, the uncertainty, the anxieties, the potential energy. Like that first audience in Paris, it can make us sit up in our seats and feel the world around us more deeply. Often, it can be a pressure valve to release emotion that might otherwise explode in destructive ways. What we do with these emotions today is ultimately up to us.
For an excellent and interactive journey through the music of the Rite and more about the creators behind it, visit the San Francisco Symphony's Keeping the Score website.