Everything you always wanted to know about… Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring
The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky? It is a scandal, a revolution. Here’s all you need to know about this masterpiece first performed on 29 May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
Pagan, visionary, outrageous… These are the adjectives given to The Rite of Spring, which recently celebrated his 104th birthday. It is a ballet created in collaboration between composer Igor Stravinsky and choreographer Vaslav Nijinski; it was first performed on 29 May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, and conducted by Pierre Monteux.
Its subtitle says "Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts". The Rite of Spring is divided into two parts, without a real story or intrigue: “The Adoration of the Earth” and “The Sacrifice”. The public witnesses a pagan rite celebrating the advent of spring in Russia, and during which a young adolescent is cruelly sacrificed to propitiate the god of spring.
A real scandal
It is the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Famous all over Europe, the company does not expect the scandal that will be caused by The Rite on the night of its premiere, which will leave an indelible mark on the history of music. If on one hand the first performance goes well and with the utmost calmness in front of Ravel, Debussy and the Parisian press, the following day - on the evening of the first public performance - it is the BIGGEST scandal ever: after only a few bars, it is impossible to hear the music because the audience is yelling, booing and whistling. The piece is renamed “the massacre of spring”.
Apparently, it is Diaghilev who (unwittingly) causes an outrage. Scared of the audience’s reaction, he has apparently hired some people to cheer and scream “bravo!” from the crowd. This encourages the rest of the audience to blow off some steam and to cover the music with their screaming. It’s a real mess: Stravinsky leaves his seat to seek refuge backstage, while Nijinski is screaming to the dancers their movements, since they can’t hear the orchestra anymore! As for Diaghilev, he frantically turns the lights on and off to try to calm the turmoil…
A pagan and beastly dance
Nijinsky's choreography causes controversy and scandal, because it drifts away from the code of classical music. Human sacrifice, weak old men... the audience of the good Parisian society is shocked by this level of bestiality, and columnists make fun of the savage “Caribbean dance” where dancers crawl and slither “just like seals do”.
It was like an apparition
Igor Stravinsky is 29 when he writes The Rite. He is already famous thanks to the two ballets he composed for the Ballets russes: Petrushka (1911) and The Firebird (1913). The Rite appears as a master stroke, where dynamism and precision dazzle an entire generation of musicians. In his Notes without music, Darius Milhaud writes that it is “the quake produced by the advent of the Rite of Spring” that paves the way for Satie and for the the group "Les Six"; in La Nouvelle Revue Française (the New French Review), Jacques Rivière describes the work as the “first masterpiece we can oppose to impressionism.”
Stravinsky’s music breaks with the past by abandoning lyricism and a certain archaism, that of Russia's pagan past. Paradoxically, this allows him to explore a new, savage and cruel musical world, which is however carefully built. This is evidenced by the opening of the Rite. This makes us think about Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (that Nijinsky performed just one year before the creation of The Rite) in which the curtain goes up with a flute solo. You say it is a bold choice? Stravinsky goes further than that: he decides to make the work start with a bassoon solo, in its higher register. The solo is repeated many times, with a supplementary voice at each time.
The beginning of The Rite of Spring and its bassoon solo by the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Simon Rattle
Diaghilev, an impresario with excellent taste
The Rite of Spring represents the beginning of a new era, the show era. Until then, artists create personal works, belonging to a single discipline. But at the turn of the century, they start to gather around an impresario, a theatre or a company to create a multi-hand work.
This is how we get to Diaghilev’s Ballets russes. He is a Russian aristocrat, a dandy, an art lover and admirer of Nijinsky; Sergei Diaghilev is mandated by the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg to create a Parisian company of the theatre. Diaghilev decides to gather around him painters, dancers, composers, poets. His golden rule: to attach equal importance to the choreography, the décor, the music and the performance, in order to create a complete show.
The Rite therefore involves the designs and costumes by Nicholas Roerich, fully fledged works of art. What binds all these aspects together is a certain Russian folklore made more explicit, which was a success for the Ballets Russes.
Making some progress
What unites music and dance more particularly is the emphasis given to rhythm, the real hero of the show. Completely deconstructed both in the music and in the choreography of The Rite, the rhythm is really revolutionary. As far as the ballet is concerned, Nijinsky multiplies jerky movements, he abandons the symmetrical arrangement of dancers and repeated figures, so that his dancers are now like broken marionettes, primitive creatures with a beastly look.
As for Stravinsky’s music, new rhythms are multiplied, one-beat, two-beat, three-beat, five-beat rhythms. These unusual rhythms for Western music, but especially for ballet music, are also a diversion in form of tribute (sometimes creaky) to Slavic folklore music, that Boulez assessed (and which Stravinsky was really proud of).
A collective turbulent creation
It's not easy to work together, and Diaghilev often has to interpose between artists. In his memoirs, he writes how Stravinsky was quite aggressive, when blaming Nijinsky for “his ignorance of the most fundamental notions of music”. Nijinsky complains:
“Igor frustrates me. With all the respect I have for him as a musician, and we’ve been friends for years now, but we waste so much time as Stravinsky thinks he is the only one who knows anything about music. In working with me he explains the value of the black notes, the white notes, of quavers and semiquavers, as though I had never studied music at all.”
Nijinsky was one of the first choreographers to develop a system of notes as movement symbols, so that thanks to his rough drafts as well as to several articles, descriptions and drawings published following the scandal, the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago was able to perform the first historical re-enactment of the show in 1987, followed by another performance by Dominique Brun.
More recently, choreographers such as Maurice Béjart, Pina Bausch, but also Angelin Preljoçaj or even the controversial Romeo Castellucci have tried to propose their own choreography of The Rite.