Rite of Spring Turns 100
May 24, 2013 § 3 Comments
Wednesday, May 29 will mark the 100 anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
So why do we care?
Because this premiere was a game-changer. Many scholars would argue that, along with the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, no other work in this history of Western music had the seismic effect that Rite of Spring had at its premiere.
What happened at the premiere?
Stravinsky’s conception for Rite came to him as he was finishing The Firebird in 1910. He had a vision of “a solemn pagan rite; wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” Stravinsky knew that Nicholas Roerich, a friend who was an archeologist and an authority on the ancient Slavs, would be interested in his idea, and he mentioned it to him. Stravinsky also shared the vision with Serge Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballet Russe, the company that had commissioned The Firebird. All three men were excited by the possibilities of the project — Diaghilev promised a production and encouraged Stravinsky to begin work immediately.
“What I was trying to convey in The Rite,” said Stravinsky, “was the surge of spring, the magnificent upsurge of nature reborn.” Inspired by childhood memories of the coming of spring to Russia (“which seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking,” he remembered), he worked with Roerich to devise a libretto which would, in Roerich’s words, “present a number of scenes of earthly joy and celestial triumph as understood by the ancient Slavs.” Stravinsky labored feverishly on the score through the winter of 1911-1912, realizing by that time that he was composing an important piece in a startling new style. “I was guided by no system whatever in The Rite of Spring,” he wrote. “Very little immediate tradition lies behind it. [Debussy was the only influence he admitted.] I had only my ear to help me. I heard, and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which The Rite passed.”
Diaghilev scheduled the premiere for May 1913, and Nijinsky was chosen to do the choreography. Stravinsky, however,
objected to Nijinsky’s selection because of the dancer’s inexperience as a choreographer and his lack of understanding of the technical aspects of the music, but preparations were begun and continued through more than 120 rehearsals. Pierre Monteux drilled the orchestra to the point of anxious readiness. The guests invited to the final dress rehearsal seemed to appreciate the striking modernity of the work, but gave no hint of the donnybrook that was to roar through the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées at the public premiere on May 29th.
Almost as soon as the curtain rose, a riot broke out the like of which had not been inspired by a piece of music since Nero’s song of antiquity. Shouts, catcalls, whistles, even fisticuffs grew so menacing that often the orchestra could not be heard. Diaghilev flashed the house lights on and off in a vain attempt to restore order; Nijinsky, when he was not on stage, pounded wildly on the scenery with his fists to keep the dancers together; Stravinsky ran out of the auditorium (“as angry as I have ever been in my life”) and spent most of the evening backstage pacing in the wings. Somehow Monteux (“cool as a crocodile,” recalled Stravinsky) guided the performance through to the end. Puccini thought The Rite “might be the creation of a madman” and the critic of the New York Sun nominated the composer as “the cave man of music.”
No one could deny, however, the ferocious, overwhelming power of the music, and when audiences began to listen to the work on its own, revolutionary terms, they could not help but be swept away by its awesome and wonderful maelstrom of exquisitely executed sound. Within a year of its stage premiere, Koussevitzky in Russia and Monteux in Paris had conducted concert performances of The Rite, and the work’s position in the orchestral repertory was soon secured.*
Rite’s choreography struck a nerve with audiences as well. Nijinsky asked the dancers to break all the rules of traditional ballet by having them stand pigeon toed with their other limbs at sharp angles.
The sets and costumes from the original production were designed and created by the mystical painter and professional ethnographer Nikolai Roerich. Three of the original costumes and a sketch by Roerich will be on display at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford starting from May 29-June 23. Patrons who visit the museum from May 29-June 2 may present their admission receipt in person at HSO Ticket Services on May 29- 31 or at The Bushnell Box Office from May 29-June 2 to receive $5 off an adult ticket (does not apply to previously purchased tickets). Additionally, HSO audiences will be able to present their Rite of Spring performance ticket stub at the Wadsworth Atheneum from May 31-June 23 to receive $5 off museum/adult admission. For more information about the Wadsworth Atheneum, please visit www.thewadsworth.org.
As with stage performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the lore and mystery surrounding this premiere is still carried by performers today. HSO Maestra Carolyn Kuan said in a recent tweet, “Immersed in the world of #RiteofSpring and feeling intoxicated with that wonderful artistic madness.” Like a scar, the wildness of the premiere forever ensured that all future performances would be possessed by a chaotic, haunting character.
The HSO will honor this groundbreaking premiere 100 years later with four full performances of Rite of Spring, featuring more than 100 musicians onstage and two soloists from The Hartt School Dance Division on Thursday, May 30 – Sunday, June 2, 2013 at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.hartfordsymphony.org.
(*Taken from Program Notes by Dr. Richard Rodda)