Stravinsky’s ballet sparked a riot at its Paris premiere in 1913. One hundred years on, Clemency Burton-Hill asks: why exactly were audiences so scandalised?

“It’s terrifying!” whispered Claude Debussy, apparently with a “sad, anxious” expression on his face. “I don’t understand it!”

Debussy was not alone in his utter lack of comprehension that unseasonably balmy Paris night of 29 May, 1913. Over in another box, in the ravishing art-nouveau auditorium at the city’s glitzy new Théâtre-des-Champs-Élysées, the composer Camille Saint-Saëns heard merely a few bars of the strange opening woodwind solo before hissing to his neighbour: “If that’s a bassoon – I’m a baboon!”

Others would not be so polite: the frenzied riots that kicked off at the premiere of The Rite of Spring have become legend. The capacity audience that evening ran the gamut from bejewelled, high-society Parisian ladies and their white-tie-wearing gentlemen to a gaggle of more bohemian critics and poets, whom Sergei Diaghilev had allowed in for free. Jean Cocteau described the crowd as exhibiting “the thousand varieties of snobbism, super-snobbism, anti-snobbism.”

Perhaps they came spoiling for a fight. The succès de scandale was, after all, a well-established element of cultural life at the turn of the last century, especially in Paris. Pieces by Wagner, Schoenberg and others customarily provoked riots, as did Wilde’s play Salomé and its 1906 operatic treatment by Richard Strauss. The Impressionist painters so relished their rejection by the establishment they triumphantly created the Salons des Refusés.

And just think of the scandalised reaction to Picasso’s radical 1906-7 work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which smashed pretty much every received idea about the representation of three dimensions onto a flat canvas, paving the way not only for Cubism but to the possibility of total abstraction in art.

This was an era in which to be a truly avant garde artist was to push audiences to the very limits of what they could understand or accept – and far beyond. An era in which certain works of art, music and literature shattered everything that had gone before; after which it was genuinely possible to say ‘nothing would ever be the same again’.

Assault on the senses

Nevertheless, the riots at the premiere of The Rite of Spring were of a different order. For the past four years Paris had been captivated by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and had perhaps come to expect dance of astonishing, radical sensuality. But not this assault! The new ballet, intended to depict the pre-historic spring rites of ancient Russia and the great sacrifice of a Slavonic tribe, had been created by a trio of visionaries. They were Igor Stravinsky, whose previous ballets The Firebird and Petrushka had already seen him acclaimed as the greatest young composer of the twentieth-century; Nicholas Roerich, an eminent student of pre-historical pagan Russia, whom Stravinsky praised in an interview as “the creator of the decorative atmosphere for this work of faith”; and – of course – Vaslav Nijinsky, the breathtaking 24-year-old dancer and choreographer.

According to the historian Lucy Moore, whose superb biography of Nijinsky has just been published, even Nijinsky was nervous before the curtain rose, knowing that his dancers were baffled and frustrated by the “shuffling steps, flat-footed jumps, clenched hands, hunched shoulders, unsynchronized and deliberately primitive choreography” he had dreamed up for them. Additionally, thanks to Roerich’s designs, they had to dance in unwieldy costumes, false beards and pointed, fur-trimmed caps for the men and headbands and long, fake plaits for the women.

Moore describes how Nijinsky, sweating in the wings before that alarmingly exposed bassoon solo began, knew that his long-robed dancers were probably wondering: “what is ballet for, if beauty and grace are removed?”

Meanwhile, “so interconnected were the choreography and the composition,” Moore reminds us, “that Stravinsky noted the rhythm of their steps on his piano score.” And what is music like this, crunchy with dissonance and twisted, sadistic harmonies for?  

The chosen one

One early listener described it as: “As irritating to the nervous system as the continuous thudding of a savage’s tom-tom!” Stravinsky later claimed that, rather like the ‘chosen one’ who dances herself to death in the ballet’s climactic Sacrificial Dance, he’d had to enter into a sort of creative trance to write The Rite of Spring. "Very little immediate tradition lies behind [it] – and no theory,” he remarked. “I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which The Rite passed."

A vessel he may well have been; but others heard, and, in their own way, wrote what they heard: like Picasso’s painting, the Rite of Spring irrevocably altered the course of 20th century music. From Carter to Boulez, Adams to Adès, nothing was ever the same again; listening today, the score is as revolutionary and thrilling as ever.

One hundred years after the notorious premiere of The Rite of Spring, the suspicion remains that the hysterical reaction from the crowd may have been one big publicity stunt orchestrated by the ever-canny Diaghilev. Why, after all, did Gabriel Astruc, the theatrical impresario behind the Théâtre-des-Champs-Élysées, have to lean out of his box, fists clenched, and scream at the rowdy audience: “First listen! Then hiss!”?

We’ll never know the truth. But perhaps it is immaterial. Contemporary observers, Moore argues, felt the music and choreography of The Rite of Spring could be “interpreted as a sign that the end of civilisation was at hand.” A few weeks ago, I found myself in the auditorium at Théâtre-des-Champs-Élysées – which is still, as Astruc intended a century ago, a temple vibrating to the vitality of art and imagination, curiosity and creativity. And it struck me that even now, in Paris, May 2013, no other work over the past 100 years has yet come close to the impact or influence of The Rite of Spring. A whole new generation of composers, designers, dancers and choreographers are still seeking bold and beautiful creative answers to the aesthetic and musical questions it raised. If that’s the end of civilization, then I’m a baboon.

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