Raucous rhythmic explosion of 1913 revisited with panoramic celebration
Eleven works to be premiered, two conferences scheduled in grand tribute to music’s modernist breakthrough
Distinguished artists from Yo Yo Ma to NYC’s Brooklyn Rider Quartet will dazzle onstage
It’s a hundred years since May 29, 1913, when Serge Diagilev, Vaslav Nijinsky and Igor Stravinsky mounted a ballet performance of the Rite of Spring at Paris’ Theatre des Champs Elysees which ended with fisticuffs in the audience and the police being called to quell the riot. The music scene was never the same again: modernism had broken through the railings of Romantic harmony and regularity to include blaring dissonance, unresolved harmonies and jerky, unpredictable rhythms in its repertoire of expressive effects:
On opening night, the very first notes hinted at the avant-garde masterpiece that was to follow. The introductory melody, adapted from a Lithuanian folk song, featured a bassoon playing at the very top of its register. The unlikely timbre of the instrument caused composer Camille Saint-Saens to exclaim, “If that is a bassoon, then I am a baboon!”
The curtain rose and the music continued, without a melody but with a loud, pulsating, dissonant chord with jarring, irregular accents. Dancers emerged dressed as primordial pagans from ancient Russia, performing an “anti-ballet” with heavy steps, bodies pulled downward and a focus on the movements of the human form rather than the elegance normally seen in a Romantic ballet.
One dancer recalled this shockingly new choreography “With every leap we landed heavily enough to jar every organ in us.” The ballet’s narrative was a raw, violent story based on pagan rites of sacrifice.
The audience, comprised of traditionalists and modernists, was moved passionately by what they saw on stage and the provocative music they heard. Some called for the ballet to be stopped or shouted at the dancers. Meanwhile others yelled back, defending the work. Diaghilev flipped the house lights on and off in a vain attempt to quell the angry crowd. Nijinsky leaned onto the stage to call out beats for the dancers who couldn’t hear the music over shouts and arguments echoing throughout the theater.
Carl Van Vechten, an American writer and photographer, was at the performance and later wrote of his experience
“The young man seated behind me in the box stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was laboring 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.”
All decorum had left the Théatre des Champs-Elysées as fistfights broke out in the aisles, duels were being called and people fled the ensuing chaos. Police were called to quell the riot that had now spilled out into the street.
Roman Vlad, a composer, pianist and musicologist, later wrote, “Never had an audience heard music so brutal, savage, aggressive, and apparently chaotic; it hit the public like a hurricane, like some uncontrolled primeval force.”
A century later, Stravinsky’s daring may seem tame compared with the discomforts of Schonberg or Berg that followed, but musicians and composers are still exploring the new universe that Le Sacre du Printemps’s wormhole sent them through to, while keeping a sometimes tenuous hold on the eternal verities of traditional music’s original forms. The balance between the two, old and new, is as challenging and fruitful as ever, and the Rite of Spring remains its quintessential starting point.
As to the music itself, it plays as well as ever, though some may find the attempt to shock the bourgeoisie out of its unimaginative complacency circa 1913 a bit dated in the Internet age, at least as far as the mythic and rather horrid theme of Le Sacre Du Printemps goes (a young pagan girl ritually dances herself to death). In fact it seems probable that most of the outrage was directed against Najinsky’s heavy footed choreography, rather than Stravinsky’s threatening discords. But the music as well as the theme has enduring appeal for its gathering mix of triumph and tragedy, harmony and dissonance, or as Bernstein once put it, “it’s got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms and whatever else you care to name.”
Definitive celebrationNow the University of North Carolina’s Emil Kang and his Carolina Performing Arts have prepared what looks to be the definitive celebration of this musical Bastille. Their “The Rite of Spring At One Hundred” festival will run from a world premiere by Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble on Sunday Sept 30 at Memorial Hall to a finale on April 27 by the Bejart Ballet Lausanne (see photo above).
In between, there will two conferences, one in Moscow, and a glittering parade of new inspiration in music and ballet by well known performers: nine world premieres and two US premieres, in fact, played by the Mariinsky Orchestra of St Petersburg conducted by Valery Gergiev, (Oct 29 and 30), Brooklyn Rider with Gabriel Kahane and Shara Warden (Nov 16), the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and SITI Company (Jan 25 and 26), Vijay Iyer and the International Contemporary Ensemble (Mar 26) the Nederlands Dans Theater (apr 3) and Basil Twist, puppeteer, with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (Apr 12 and 13).
The size and scope of the celebration is remarkable, especially since all performances will take place in Chapel Hill. That’s only “an hour away” from Manhattan, say the sponsors, but given so many performances and the expense in energy, time and fare in getting there, one can only keep one’s fingers crossed they get the audiences they deserve. For those interested in this remarkable watershed in musical history and its enormous influence on music since there can surely never be such an opportunity again.
(See our photo bank at OnlyGoodPhotos:Emil Lang’s Rich Cake for Rite of Spring for more pics or The Rite of Spring At 100 for more pics and tickets, with relevant videos of most of the performers at work ).