In May of 1913, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky premiered his ballet, ‘The Rite of Spring’ in Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and people totally flipped out.
Witnesses say that attendees started throwing things, fist fighting, and at least one person was challenged to a duel.
Lydia Sokolova, one of the dancers on the stage that night, said the audience came prepared.
“They had got themselves all ready. They didn’t even let the music be played for the overture. As soon as it was known that the conductor was there, the uproar began,” she said in an interview recorded in 1965.
If you’re not a classical music buff, consider this something to put in your cocktail conversation arsenal. The Rite of Spring wasn’t just a ballet, it was a massive challenge to music as it was.
At the turn of the century, the debate in music obviously wasn’t about rock vs. hip hop, it was a lot headier than that. The 1800s was dominated by Romanticsm, flowing melodies and grandiose symphonic compositions full of nationalistic sentiment and emotion. Philosophers believed that music was the highest form of art because it took no shape, and when you heard it, you just felt without any connection to an object.
Stravinsky basically told all of that to shove it.
He wanted the music to be an object. To forget the melody and create something with sound. That’s why, if you’ve ever heard the Rite, it sounds jagged and edgy.
To Stravinsky, when you performed the ballet, you were also creating a thing, not just a feeling.
At that time, ballet was an art form the Russians had come to dominate. Stravinksy and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky’s complicated that form as well. ‘The Rite’ had no plot in the traditional sense, but was just a series of dances, and instead of making dancers perfect and graceful, their movements were wild and violent.
In short: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring isn’t about some gentle baby birds being born in their nests. Its the violent emergence of life against the odds of nature.
To an audience steeped in the beauty of Romanticism this was either daring and refreshing, or a show of Russian “primitivism” in the most pejorative sense. That’s why everyone went completely wild.
Imagine that happening at the ballet now.
To see why this ballet isn’t like The Nutcracker, check out the video below:
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