This Week in Music History: The riotous premiere of The Rite of Spring (1913)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark.

This week? Igor Stravinsky’s legendary ballet The Rite of Spring had its premiere on March 29, 1913, in Paris’s newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The work is a landmark of 20th-century music (and known to millions thanks to its place in Disney’s Fantasia), but the riot that took place at its premiere is, if anything, even more famous. The many accounts of that notorious evening speak for themselves.


“A fleeting vision”

Stravinsky, in his autobiography, claims that a vivid dream of the Sacrificial Dance (part of which is above) was what inspired the ballet:

One day, when I was finishing the last pages of L’Oiseau de Feu in St Petersburg, I had a fleeting vision which came to me as a complete surprise, my mind at the moment being full of other things. I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring. Such was the theme of the Sacre du Printemps.

Stravinsky also explains how Vaslav Nijinsky, the brilliant dancer and almost untested choreographer, came to be given the project:

[The impresario Serge] Diaghilev made up his mind that year that he would spare no effort to make a choreographer of Nijinsky… To be perfectly frank, I must say here and now that the idea of working with Nijinsky filled me with misgiving, notwithstanding our friendliness and my great admiration for his talent as a dancer and mime. His ignorance of the most elementary notions of music was flagrant. The poor boy knew nothing of music.

A posed group of dancers in the original production of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring, showing costumes and backdrop by Nicholas Roerich.
Dancers in the original production of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring;costumes and backdrop by Nicholas Roerich.

“Heated discussions”

The day of the premiere, Diaghilev had a press release published in Parisian newspapers. Curiously, it seems to predict the “heated” audience reaction:

Le Sacre du Printemps, which the Russian Ballet [Ballets Russes] will perform for the first time this evening at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, is the most amazing creation ever attempted by M. Serge de Diaghilev’s admirable company…

Only the wonderful Russian dancers could portray these first stammered gestures of a half-savage humanity; only they could represent these frenzied mobs of people who stamp out untiringly the most startling polyrhythms ever produced by the brain of a musician. Here is truly a new sensation which will undoubtedly provoke heated discussions, but will leave every spectator with an unforgettable memory of the artists.

“I did not feel the blows for some time”

Pierre Monteux, who conducted the premiere, offers one of numerous accounts of the extreme reaction The Rite of Spring did indeed provoke:

The audience remained quiet for the first two minutes. Then came boos and catcalls from the gallery, soon after from the lower floors.

Stravinsky:

I left the auditorium at the first bars of the prelude, which had at once evoked derisive laughter. I was disgusted. These demonstrations, at first isolated, soon became general, provoking counter-demonstrations and very quickly developing into a terrific uproar.

The New York Times reported on the sensational premiere nine days later
The New York Times reported on the sensational premiere nine days later

Lydia Sokolova, who danced in the premiere:

The shouting and whistling in the audience began almost as soon as the music, and by the time the curtain went up, we were pretty scared.

Romola de Pulszky, the future wife of Nijinsky:

One beautifully dressed lady in an orchestra box stood up and slapped the face of a young man who was hissing in the next box. Her escort rose, and cards were exchange between the men. A duel followed next day. Another society lady spat in the face of one of the demonstrators.

Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris.
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris.

Carl Van Vechten, an American writer and photographer who claimed to have attended the premiere:

I was sitting in a box in which I had rented one seat. Three ladies sat in front of me and a  young man occupied the place behind me. He stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was laboring, thanks to the potent force of the music, betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time. They were perfectly synchronized with the beat of the music. When I did, I turned around. His apology was sincere. We both had been carried beyond ourselves.

In fact, Van Vechten only made it to the second night. But the fact that he went so far as to lie about it is proof of just how notorious the event became.

“Stamping and trying to count”

The dancers had a tough time of it.

Sketches of Maria Piltz performing the sacrificial dance: Valentine Gross-Hugo, published in Montjoie! (magazine), Paris, June 1913
Maria Piltz performing the sacrificial dance: Valentine Gross-Hugo, published in Montjoie! (magazine), Paris, June 1913

Stravinsky:

During the whole performance I was at Nijinsky’s side in the wings. He was standing on a chair, screaming “sixteen, seventeen, eighteen”—they had their own method of counting to keep time. Naturally the poor dancers could hear nothing by reason of the row in the auditorium and the sound of their own dance steps. I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes, for he was furious, and ready to dash on to the stage at any moment and create a scandal.

Sokolova:

We were all terrified that we were doing the fourth, fifth or sixth steps, while somebody else was doing the second; and Nijinsky was in the wings stamping and trying to count for different groups all at once. We could see Diaghilev too, walking up and down, holding his head. We must have been a lovely picture for the audience, racing around, jumping, turning, and wondering when the whole thing was going to collapse.

“The role that was written for it”

The music and choreography were undoubtedly startling. But perhaps the audience were at the ready to be startled by it—in part thanks to that curious press release issued that morning.

Stravinsky:

Oddly enough, at the dress rehearsal, to which we had, as usual, invited a number of actors, painters, musicians, writers, and the most cultured representatives of society, everything had gone off peacefully, and I was very far from expecting such an outburst.

The writer Jean Cocteau was a little more cynical:

All the elements of a scandal were present. The smart audience in tails and tulle, diamonds and ospreys was interspersed with the suits and bandeaux of the aesthetic crowd. The latter would applaud novelty simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes. Innumerable shades of snobbery, super-snobbery and inverted snobbery were represented… The audience played the role that was written for it.


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