From Counterlight: 100 Years Ago Today
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had its riotous premier at the Champs Elysee Theater in Paris. Stravinsky never wrote anything like this again.
Imagine the scene: It’s May 29, 1913, a humid night at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, a new and glittery Art Deco hall in Paris. It’s packed with the curious, alongside the cultural cognoscenti. Picasso is there, as are Proust, Cocteau, Debussy and Stein. The occasion is the premiere of a new ballet by Sergei Diaghilev’s trendy and trend-setting Ballet Russes, set to music by a young composer named Igor Stravinsky: “Le sacre du printemps,” it’s called, or “The Rite of Spring.”
The music begins: eerie, strangely alluring. Then it turns raw, erotic, violent — like symphonic rock ‘n’ roll, with staggered, dance-to-your-death rhythms and crunched chords, one of which repeats some 200 times. Quickly, mayhem breaks out in the hall, the audience dividing into camps. There’s shouting. Insults are hurled at the stage. By some accounts, blows are exchanged. Amid the racket, the dancers can’t hear the music. Stravinsky flees his seat.
Choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, the original ballet depicted springtime pagan celebrations in ancient Russia and the selection of a maiden — the “Chosen One,” who dances herself to death, a sacrificial offering to Mother Earth and the gods. Tilson Thomas describes the score as “a complete leap into the world of the unconscious” and the “wild power” of the village music, which he imagines as leading to an “exalted state.”
At the second of the upcoming festival’s two programs, the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble, founded in Moscow 40 years ago, will perform some of the Slavic folk music that inspired Stravinsky and informed his works, including “The Rite” and “Les Noces.” The complex, irregular rhythms in that folk music (and in those pieces) is second nature to the ensemble: “It’s just what they do,” Tilson Thomas says. “It’s this total natural swing and panache. And, of course, that’s what Stravinsky was after.”
(Seeking Spirit: I am adding a full performance here)
And this performance by Seiji Ozawa and the Chicago Philharmonic from 1968 remains one of my favorites.
This piece is now 100 years old, and I’ve loved it for about 40 of those years. I first heard it when I was about 15. I’ve loved it ever since.
Familiarity is the acid test of art. Lots of musical works, plays, paintings, etc. had spectacular premiers only to die quickly; too cerebral and personal to mean much to anyone other than a handful of initiates, or a lot of dramatic flash whose novelty wore off too quickly. This work endures. Its power to startle and to move remains undiminished by time. After about 40 years, I still fall under the spell of this ballet as much as I did when I was in my teens.