Igor Stravinsky with 'Dancers' by Matisse [collage NPR Today]
Igor Stravinsky with ‘Dancers’ by Matisse [collage: NPR Today]
On Friday evening we heard an electrifying centennial performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at the Philharmonic Hall with Vasily Petrenko conducting.  At the close, the reception for Petrenko and the Philharmonic Orchestra was rapturous. There was no riot.

The programme had been billed as identical to the one in which the Rite had its infamous first performance in Paris on 29 May 1913.  The orchestra began with de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat (although de Falla didn’t complete his ballet until 1919 – it was actually Les Sylphides they heard that night in Paris).  De Falla’s sultry, stamping Spanish rhythms was
followed by the shimmering woodwinds and harps of Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune, and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances in a performance that rivalled the Rite for sheer power and excitement. The entire Philharmonic Choir had been marshalled for this 10-minute appearance, and with Petrenko directing the mass ranks of the choir and an augmented orchestra, the massed musicians generated a thrilling and immense sound.  At one point I was certain that the choir were singing the melody of ‘Stranger In Paradise’.  I now know they were: the melodies in the 1953 musical Kismet, from which that song derives, were all lifted from Polovtsian Dances.

This Wednesday will mark the 100th anniversary of the Rite‘s scandalous première.  It’s possible that no musical work has had such a powerful influence or evoked as much controversy as The Rite of Spring. The work’s première on 29 May 1913, at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, outraged at least a section of the audience and provoked a modest riot. It wasn’t just the music: the ballet, with its bizarre story of pagan sacrifice, wild dances and outrageous costumes were as much of a provocation as Stravinsky’s musical radicalism.

Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky
Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky

One of the first reviews of the Paris première was by Jacques Rivière, a critic for the Nouvelle Revue Française. Apart from the fact that it was overwhelmingly positive, Rivière’s review is notable for the way it highlights the production as being a brilliant collaboration: ‘Who is the author of Le Sacre du Printemps?’  Rivière asked. ‘Who created it?  Nijinsky, Stravinsky or Roerich?’

Serge Diaghilev was the director of the Ballets Russes. He and Stravinsky were close working partners for twenty years, until Diaghilev’s death in 1929. Many of Stravinsky’s most outstanding works were composed for Diaghilev productions, including The Firebird and Petrushka (1911), The Rite of Spring (1913), Pulcinella (1920) and Les Noces (1923). Their first collaboration was on the ballet Les Sylphides, the musically innocuous opening piece on that May night in Paris.

Dancers of the Ballet-Russes
Dancers of the Ballet Russes

Then there was Nijinsky’s shocking choreography, far removed from the elegance expected in a ballet in 1913, and physically unnatural to perform: ‘With every leap we landed heavily enough to jar every organ in us’, one dancer recalled. When the curtain rose and the music began, without a melody but with loud, pulsating, dissonant chords and jarring, irregular accents, dancers emerged dressed as pagans from ancient Russia, performing with heavy steps, their bodies wrenched and pulled to the earth. One ballet historian quoted by Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise states that ‘the dancers trembled, shook, shivered, stamped; jumped crudely and ferociously, circled the stage in wild khorovods’.

Vaslav Nijinsky
Vaslav Nijinsky

The costumes and scenery for The Rite of Spring were designed by artist and Slavonic folklore expert Nicholas Roerich. Diaghilev had commissioned Roerich to design several of the company’s ballets, and for The Rite, Roerich created costumes that were influenced by traditional Slavic folk dress and developed a scenic design that was sparse with primitive props and a backdrop of pagan landscapes – hills and trees painted in strange bright colours, intended to evoke intense feelings and the mystery of nature.

Design of stage backdrop for 'Le Sacre du Printemps' by Nikolai Roerich
Design of stage backdrop for The Rite of Spring by Nikolai Roerich

Last but not least, there was Stravinsky’s music, angular, dissonant and – in 1913, at least – totally unpredictable – and inscrutable.  Accounts of the first performance note that many of those in the audience were baffled as to what instruments they were hearing.  The introductory melody, adapted from a Lithuanian folk song, featured a bassoon being played higher in its range than anyone had ever been asked to do before. The unlikely sound of the instrument caused composer Camille Saint-Saens to exclaim, ‘If that is a bassoon, then I am a baboon!’

In The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross provides a vivid account of that first night:

The programme began innocuously, with a revival of the Ballets Russes’ Chopin fantasy Les Sylphides. After a pause, the theatre darkened again, and high, falsetto-like bassoon notes floated out of the orchestra. Strands of melody intertwined like vegetation bursting out of the earth – ‘sacred terror in the noonday sun’, Stravinsky called it, in a description that had been published that morning. The audience listened to the opening section of the Rite in relative silence, although the increasing density and dissonance of the music caused mutterings, titters, whistles, and shouts. Then, at the beginning of the second section, a dance for adolescents titled ‘The Augurs of Spring’, a quadruple shock arrived, in the form of harmony, rhythm, image, and movement. At the outset of the section, the strings and horns play a crunching discord, consisting of an F-flat-major triad and an E-flat dominant seventh superimposed. They are one semitone apart (F-flat being the same as E-natural), and they clash at every node. A steady pulse propels the chord, but accents land every which way, on and off the beat:

one two three four five six seven eight
one two three four five six seven eight
one two three four five six seven eight
one two three four five six seven eight

Even Diaghilev quivered a little when he first heard the music. ‘Will it last a very long time this way?’ he asked. Stravinsky replied, ‘Till the end, my dear’. The chord repeats some two hundred times. Meanwhile, Nijinsky’s choreography discarded classical gestures in favour of near-anarchy. […]

Howls of discontent went up from the boxes, where the wealthiest onlookers sat. Immediately, the aesthetes in the balconies and the standing room howled back. There were overtones of class warfare in the proceedings. […]

Little more of the score was heard after that. ‘One literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music,’ Gertrude Stein recalled, no doubt overstating for effect.  ‘Our attention was constantly distracted by a man in the box next to us flourishing his cane, and finally in a violent altercation with an enthusiast in the box next to him, his cane came down and smashed the opera hat the other had just put on in defiance. It was all incredibly fierce.’

Nevertheless, in Alex Ross’s judgement, the riot at the Rite‘s first night wasn’t unique – there had been other first night disturbances in previous years, and only a couple of months before the première of the Rite, police were called to a riot in Vienna triggered by the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.  Ross continues:

Soon enough, Parisian listeners realized that the language of the Rite was not so unfamiliar; it teemed with plain-spoken folk-song melodies, common chords in sparring layers, syncopations of irresistible potency. In a matter of days, confusion turned into pleasure, boos into bravos. Even at the first performance, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and the dancers had to bow four or five times for the benefit of the applauding faction. Subsequent performances were packed, and at each one the opposition dwindled. At the second, there was noise only during the latter part of the ballet; at the third, ‘vigorous applause’ and little protest.  At a concert performance of the Rite one year later, ‘unprecedented exaltation’ and a ‘fever of adoration’ swept over the crowd, and admirers mobbed Stravinsky in the street afterwards, in a riot of delight.

As mentioned earlier, one of the first reviews of the Paris première was by Jacques Rivière, a critic for the Nouvelle Revue Française, and it was wildly enthusiastic:

But all of the sudden one night [there appeared] this thing without profit, this refusal to live off the past, this terrifying blow to the very expectations they had themselves implanted in us, this work which changes everything, which changes the very source of our esthetic judgments and one which we must immediately number among the greatest: Le Sacre du Printemps. […]

It was a masterpiece.  I beg your pardon for expressing my great enthusiasm at such length without giving my reasons.  It is just that they are too numerous and too important to be summarized in one sweeping statement.  The work is so new that to grasp it fully one must let time mature and deepen the thoughts it suggests.  It marks a date not only in the history of the dance and of music but in all the arts.  Its beauty overflows everywhere.  But that only makes it more difficult to embrace.

Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes from 1909 to 1929, by Léon Bakst
Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes from 1909 to 1929, by Léon Bakst

Whatever the scale of outrage and incomprehension that greeted its debut, Stravinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring is now regarded as one of the greatest musical masterpieces of the twentieth century – perhaps the greatest of all.  Alex Ross puts it in context and makes this judgement:

The Rite, whose first part ends with a stampede for full orchestra titled ‘Dance of the Earth’, prophesied a new type of popular art – low-down yet sophisticated, smartly savage, style and muscle intertwined. It epitomized the ‘second avant-garde’ in classical composition, the post-Debussy strain that sought to drag the art out of Faustian ‘novel spheres’ and into the physical world. For much of the nineteenth century, music had been a theatre of the mind; now composers would create a music of the body. Melodies would follow the patterns of speech; rhythms would match the energy of dance; musical forms would be more concise and clear; sonorities would have the hardness of life as it is really lived.

A phalanx of European composers – Stravinsky in Russia, Bela Bartok in Hungary, Leos Janacek in what would become the Czech Republic, Maurice Ravel in France, and Manuel de Falla in Spain, to name some of the principals – devoted themselves to folk song and other musical remnants of a pre-urban life, trying to cast off the refinements of the city dweller. […]

The real break came with the First World War. Even before it was over, Satie and various young Parisians renounced fin-de-siecle solemnity and appropriated music-hall tunes, ragtime, and jazz; they also partook of the noisemaking spirit of Dada, which had enlivened Zurich during the war. Their earthiness was urban, not rural – frivolity with a militant edge.


A hundred years after that first performance, Vasily Petrenko  and the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra gave a spine-tingling account of Stravinsky’s electrifying work.  It was a truly visceral musical experience, the musicians approaching the piece with tremendous attack that emphasised its jagged rhythms and sharp contrasts.  Is there anything that can compare to the deafening and shattering conclusion of this work – or to hearing it performed live?

Complete performance: Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 2010

Or, for a sense of what the original ballet production of 1913 would have been like:

Footnote, 28 May: according to an item in today’s Guardian, the audience at that first night 100 years ago included Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.

And 29 May: How Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has shaped 100 years of music is an interesting article by George Benjamin in today’s Guardian.

Best of all, though, is this visualisation of Stravinsky’s music by Jay Bacal and Stephen Malinowski, in two parts: The Adoration of the Earth, (above), and The Exalted Sacrifice, (below). It’s an animated graphical score that, in Malinowski’s words, allows “your eyes to lead your ears” as the music’s structure and the lines of orchestration are given shape on screen.

See also


5 thoughts on “The Rite of Spring at Liverpool Phil: an electrifying ‘riot of delight’

    1. Thanks, Yamey. I knew that Roerich settled in the States, but I didn’t know about the India connection. Many thanks for that.

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