Pounding, pagan, pulsing — these are the words typically used to describe Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, “The Rite of Spring,” which debuted 100 years ago last week in Paris and was greeted, literally, with riots.
Stravinsky’s ode to the elemental still brings audiences to their feet, even if they are not destroying property afterward. Explanations vary, but whether it is the ballet’s “eternal youth,” or the fact that the music “taps the power of the Earth” or evokes “the adrenaline” surge of the caveman, the piece touches a primordial chord and manages to move listeners a century after it debuted.
When “The Rite of Spring” was first performed to a sold-out audience at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees on May 29, 1913, Stravinsky had been working for several years as the principal composer for ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Together, they had produced “The Firebird” and “Petruschka.” While successful, neither of them evoked the response of “The Rite of Spring.”
Drawing from Russian folk music, the score was extremely loud and percussive, with frequent changes of meter and accents that seemed designed to make the listener uncomfortable. Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography matched the music, with dancers jumping and twisting in seemingly awkward fashion.
The piece concludes with a virgin’s dance to the death. In form, tone and substance, it was almost as if the production was intended to subvert every convention of the ballet. Italian composer Giacomo Puccini called it “sheer cacophony.”
The audience reacted as could be expected. The Parisian sophisticates objected, either because they were offended by the performance or because they felt they were being mocked. Soon into the piece, the music could not be heard. Chairs were thrown and eventually people were ejected by the police.
Several prominent members of the audience left the performance in anger, dismay or disgust. But by the end of the piece, several dancers were given curtain calls. While the reviews were mixed — one labeled the piece “puerile barbarity” — within a decade “The Rite of Spring” passed into the canon. Stravinsky went on to work with some of the most daring artists of his era — Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and George Ballanchine — and is now viewed as one of the great composers of his time.
The centennial of the premiere of “The Rite of Spring” was marked last week with performances around the world, including the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. And even if the piece does not provoke audiences as it did 100 years ago — despite the presence of a flash mob at the Paris performance to replicate its stormy initial reception — it still moves them. Indeed, “The Rite of Spring” is now considered an icon of 20th century music and is thought to have transformed thinking about rhythmic structure.
It is surely just a coincidence that last week also marked the anniversary of another incident in 20th century musical outrage: On May 31, 1977, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the voice of the British establishment, banned the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” Released to coincide with Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, “God Save the Queen” was another of manager Malcolm McLaren’s brilliant public relations moves that rode conservative outrage to commercial success.
While some argued that the band should be charged with treason, the venerable BBC merely offered that the song was an example of “gross bad taste.” The band was likely to have greeted that criticism with grins and acknowledgement that offending conventional tastes was the point of the entire exercise.
Their label, Virgin Records — entrepreneur Richard Branson’s first venture — played up the controversy by hiring a boat on the Thames River to blast Parliament with the song from giant speakers, prompting the passengers’ arrest when they reached the dock, and offering blasts of their own at parliamentarians who sought to ban the record outright.
There were no riots in the streets, but “God Save the Queen,” a raucous study in cacophony with lyrics calculated to offend, was selling 150,000 copies a day after it was banned. It ultimately peaked — with some suspicion about why it did not rise higher — at number two on the British pop charts but it rated a mere blank space on the published rankings. Without the (inadvertent) aid of the establishment, the song would have been lucky to sell half as many copies in total.
While McLaren and the Sex Pistols are loath to draw a line connecting their efforts and those of Stravinsky, some might see the punks as his heirs. Even fans of “The Rite of Spring” concede that it is “shocking,” frightening and designed to unbalance, if not outrage, listeners. If classical music fans would blanch at seeing their hero intertwined with punk anarchists, most punks — and all the Sex Pistols — would be just as offended by being associated with such grand musical traditions. But they may have more in common than both care to concede. Then again, it could just be something in the air at this time of the year.