Today is the 100th anniversary of the world premier of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring score and ballet, which was originally done in Paris in 1913 . For a cool visual interpretation of the music, check out this link. It featured Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky. The piece forever changed classical music and ballet, in the way that it introduced a new kind of modern music, dance and story. According to this NPR article:
“In addition to the outrageous costumes, unusual choreography and bizarre story of pagan sacrifice, Stravinsky’s musical innovations tested the patience of the audience to the fullest. When the curtain rose and the dancing began, there appeared a musical theme without a melody, only a loud, pulsating, dissonant chord with jarring, irregular accents. In the introduction, Stravinksy called for a bassoon to play higher in its range than anyone else had ever done. In fact, the instrument was virtually unrecognizable as a bassoon. One of the dancers recalled that Vaslav Nijinsky’s shocking choreography was physically unnatural to perform. ‘With every leap we landed heavily enough to jar every organ in us.’ The music itself was angular, dissonant and totally unpredictable. The audience responded to the ballet with such a din of hisses and catcalls that the performers could barely hear each other.”
The ballet and score was seen as scandalous and required the police to come and stop the riot caused by the audience’s reaction. People reacted in the voilent way they did because the ballet and music went totally against other traditional ballet and orchestra pieces of the day. According to this webpage about the riot, “As the ballet progressed, so did the audience’s discomfort. Those in favor of Stravinksy’s work argued with those in opposition.” The composer himself was said to be incredibly angry at the crowd’s response to his music.
I first heard The Rite of Spring score as a kid, though I didn’t know it. It was one of the pieces of music selected for the Disney movie Fantasia. It is shortened by ten minutes instead of having the full 35 minute piece, and is the fourth and longest segment in the film. To be honest, it wasn’t one of my favorites, probably because it is so dark and discordant sounding (although I loved Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by JS Bach, which was also dark). I much preferred the happier sounding Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, The Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven, or Ponchielli’s La Giaconda: Dance of the Hours. I know the movie gets a lot of complaints about scaring children with The Night on Bald Mountain sequence and all the topless female centaurs in the Pastoral Symphonys section of the film, it has always been one of my favorites and probably at least part of the reason why I still really enjoy listening to classical music today. I’ve never seen the piece live and it is probably one of the few ballets that I would actually love to go see, just to hear the music.