Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Program Note

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
The Rite of Spring for piano four-hands (1913)

In 1911, Stravinsky began the score that would create the biggest scandal in the history of music. He was already famous, just as Sergei Diaghilev had predicted—during rehearsals for The Firebird he pointed to Stravinsky and said, “Mark him well; he is a man on the eve of celebrity.” But Le sacre du printemps, or The Rite of Spring as we have come to call it, put him at the very forefront of the avant-garde and spread his name to corners of the world where news of the latest styles in French ballet rarely traveled. (Although when the score was suggested to Walt Disney for his film Fantasia, he asked “The Sock?”, clearly never having heard of Le sacre.)

May 29, 1913, the night The Rite of Spring opened at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, is one of the dates historians cite as the start of the modern age, like 1907, the year Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, or 1922, when The Waste Land and Ulysses were published. As Pierre Boulez has written, The Rite of Spring serves as a point of reference to all who seek to establish the birth certificate of what is still called “contemporary” music. A kind of manifesto work, somewhat in the same way and probably for the same reasons as Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, it has not ceased to engender, first polemics, then praise, and finally, the necessary clarification.

The premiere is engraved in all the music history textbooks first of all because of the outrage it provoked—in time it has become the most notorious scandal in music and one of cultural history’s most cherished riots. The principal players, in addition to Stravinsky, were Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario; Pierre Monteux, the conductor; and Vaslav Nijinsky, the dancer who was making his debut as a choreographer.

The scene has often been retold: the audience grew restless and noisy almost as soon as the music began, and when the dancing started, it erupted. “I have never again been that angry,” Stravinsky later wrote. “The music was so familiar to me; I loved it, and I could not understand why people who had not heard it wanted to protest in advance.” There were catcalls and fistfights; one fight victim called out for a dentist. According to the artist Valentine Hugo, who was there (and made the four books of drawings that helped the Joffrey Ballet reconstruct the original production in 1987), the entire theater “seemed to be shaken by an earthquake.” Diaghilev flipped the house lights off and on to quiet the crowd. Nijinsky, recognizing imminent disaster, stood on a chair in the wings shouting numbers, directions, and general encouragement to his dancers. And all the while Pierre Monteux continued conducting. “He stood there apparently impervious and as nerveless as a crocodile,” Stravinsky remembered. “It is still almost incredible to me that he actually brought the orchestra through to the end.”

The spectacle of the premiere has always overshadowed the fact that at the dress rehearsal, before an invited audience which included Debussy and Ravel, and at the subsequent performances, The Rite of Spring didn’t cause any commotion. And most reports of opening night fail to point out that, despite the revolutionary nature of Stravinsky’s music, it was the dancing that provoked the audience. (After the opening moments, it would have been difficult even to hear the orchestra. “One literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music,” Gertrude Stein later commented, with characteristic poetic license because, after all, she wasn’t actually there.) As Stravinsky was fond of remembering, after the first concert performance almost a year later, the crowd cheered and he was carried aloft through the theater and into the Place de la Trinité.

Stravinsky claimed his first “fleeting vision” of this piece came to him in the spring of 1910, as he was finishing The Firebird. “I saw in my imagination,” he later recalled, “a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” The scenario was planned in collaboration with the Russian painter and archeologist Nikolai Roerich, in the summer of 1910, before a note was written.

Stravinsky began to compose the music in Clarens, Switzerland, in the fall of 1911, at a small upright piano wedged into a room just eight feet square. It was in that room—with the piano, mercifully, muted for composing—that he hit upon the pounding chords of the Augers of Spring. Part 1 was finished early in January 1912, and he played through it for Pierre Monteux. “Before he got very far,” the conductor remembers, “I was convinced he was raving mad.” Early in June, Stravinsky persuaded Debussy to play through the four hand arrangement of the score with him at a party. It was hardly typical party music, and when they were done, one guest recalls, “We were dumbfounded, overwhelmed by this hurricane which had come from the depths of the ages and which had taken life by the roots.” Stravinsky completed the entire score in sketch on November 17, “with an unbearable toothache.” Rehearsals for the ballet lasted six months; Stravinsky uncharacteristically stayed away until the very end. Despite the dancers’ difficulties with the music’s uncountable rhythms, rehearsals went on without incident. Stravinsky walked into the theater on May 29 unprepared for what would soon follow.

—Phillip Huscher