May 282013

One day, when I was fin­ish­ing the last pages of The Fire­bird in St Peters­burg [in 1910], I had a fleet­ing vis­ion… I saw in my ima­gin­a­tion a sol­emn pagan rite: sage eld­ers, seated in a circle, watched a single girl dance her­self to death. They were sac­ri­fi­cing her to pro­pi­ti­ate the god of spring.

On 29 May 1913 Igor Stravinsky’s vis­ion became real­ity when The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du prin­temps) was premiered at the Théâtres des Champs-Élysées in Paris — 100 years ago. And it caused a riot. Literally.

There was some­thing in this bal­let and its music which didn’t irrit­ate or bore but caused anger. It was too much.

Before the riot

Diaghilev and Stravinsky 500x395 100 years after the riot: The Rite of Spring by those who were thereEven those col­lab­or­at­ing on the new piece had their doubts. Pierre Mon­teux, the con­ductor of the première, heard Strav­in­sky play a sec­tion on the piano in 1912:

With only Diaghilev and myself as audi­ence, Strav­in­sky sat down to play a piano reduc­tion of the entire score. Before he got very far I was con­vinced he was rav­ing mad. Heard this way, without the col­our of the orches­tra which is one of its greatest dis­tinc­tions, the crudity of the rhythms was emphas­ized, its stark prim­it­ive­ness under­lined. The very walls resoun­ded as Strav­in­sky poun­ded away, occa­sion­ally stamp­ing his feet and jump­ing up and down to accen­tu­ate the force of the music. Not that it needed such emphasis.

And Bal­let Russes stage man­ager Serge Grig­or­iev described the dan­cers’ dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the rehearsals:

The com­pany heart­ily dis­liked them, call­ing them arith­metic classes, because owing to the total absence of tune in the music, the dan­cers had to time their move­ments by count­ing the bars. They also saw little point in Nijinsky’s com­pos­i­tion, which con­sisted almost entirely of rhyth­mical stamp­ing without any other move­ment… When on his return Diaghilev enquired about Le Sacre and learnt of its enorm­ous unpop­ular­ity, he merely remarked that it was an excel­lent sign.

The dress rehearsal went down well. Strav­in­sky wrote,

Oddly enough, at the dress rehearsal, to which [Diaghilev] had, as usual, invited a num­ber of act­ors, paint­ers, musi­cians, writers, and the most cul­tured rep­res­ent­at­ives of soci­ety, everything had gone off peace­fully, and I was very far from expect­ing such an outburst.

For Jean Cocteau, it was enough to look at the audi­ence to real­ise that things might not go smoothly:

To a prac­ticed eye, all the mater­ial needed for a scan­dal is assembled there; a fash­ion­able audi­ence, low-cut dresses, tricked out in pearls, egret and ostrich feath­ers; and side by side with tails and tulle, the sack suits, head­bands, showy rags of that race of aes­thetes who acclaim, right or wrong, any­thing that is new because of their hatred of the boxes (whose incom­pet­ent acclam­a­tions are more intol­er­able than the sin­cere hisses of the former). And in addi­tion to fevered musi­cians, a few sheep of Panurge caught between fash­ion­able opin­ion and the credit owed to the Bal­let Russe.

The riot

Rite of Spring dancers 500x321 100 years after the riot: The Rite of Spring by those who were thereAnd what an out­burst it was. Grig­or­iev again:

After the first inter­val the cur­tain rose on Le Sacre, and not many minutes passed before a sec­tion of the audi­ence began shout­ing its indig­na­tion; on which the rest retali­ated with loud appeals for order. The hub­bub soon became deaf­en­ing; but the dan­cers went on, and so did the orches­tra, though scarcely a note of the music could be heard. The shout­ing con­tin­ued even dur­ing the change of scene, for which music was provided; and now actual fight­ing broke out among some of the spec­tat­ors; yet even this did not deter Mon­teux from per­sist­ing with the per­form­ance… Diaghilev tried every device he could think of to calm the audi­ence, keep­ing the lights up in the aud­it­or­ium as long as pos­sible so that the police, who had been called in, could pick out and eject some of the worst offend­ers. But no sooner were the lights lowered again for the second scene than pan­de­monium burst out afresh, and then con­tin­ued till the bal­let come to an end.

In Stravinsky’s 1936 auto­bi­o­graphy he wrote,

I left the aud­it­or­ium at the first bars of the pre­lude, which had at once evoked deris­ive laughter. I was dis­gus­ted. These demon­stra­tions, at first isol­ated, soon became gen­eral, pro­vok­ing counter-demonstrations and very quickly devel­op­ing into a ter­rific uproar. Dur­ing the whole per­form­ance I was at Nijinsky’s side in the wings. He was stand­ing on a chair, scream­ing “six­teen, sev­en­teen, eight­een” – they had their own method of count­ing to keep time.

Nat­ur­ally the poor dan­cers could hear noth­ing by reason of the row in the aud­it­or­ium and the sound of their own dance steps. I had to hold Nij­in­sky by his clothes, for he was furi­ous, and ready to dash onto the stage at any moment and cre­ate a scan­dal. Diaghilev kept order­ing the elec­tri­cians to turn the lights on or off, hop­ing in that way to put a stop to the noise. That is all I can remem­ber about that first performance.

Work­ing with Nijinsky

Nijinsky 310x500 100 years after the riot: The Rite of Spring by those who were thereAccord­ing to Strav­in­sky it was Nijinsky’s cho­reo­graphy that caused it all:

The scan­dal which it pro­duced is a mat­ter of his­tory, but that scan­dal was in nowise due to the so-called nov­elty of the per­form­ance, but to a ges­ture, too auda­cious and too intim­ate, which Nij­in­sky made, doubt­less think­ing that any­thing was per­miss­ible with an erotic sub­ject and per­haps wish­ing thereby to enhance the effect of the pro­duc­tion.

He had doubts from the beginning:

To be per­fectly frank, I must say here and now that the idea of work­ing with Nij­in­sky filled me with mis­giv­ing, not­with­stand­ing our friend­li­ness and my great admir­a­tion for his tal­ent as dan­cer and mime. His ignor­ance of the most ele­ment­ary notions of music was flag­rant. The poor boy knew noth­ing of music. He could neither read it nor play any instru­ment, and his reac­tions to music were expressed in banal phrases or the repe­ti­tion of what he had heard oth­ers say. As one was unable to dis­cover any indi­vidual impres­sions, one began to doubt whether he had any. These lacunae were so ser­i­ous that his plastic vis­ion, often of great beauty, could not com­pensate for them.

Nij­in­sky began by demand­ing such a fant­astic num­ber of rehears­als that it was phys­ic­ally impossible to give them to him. It will not be dif­fi­cult to under­stand why he wanted so many, when I say that in try­ing to explain to him the con­struc­tion of my work in gen­eral out­line and in detail I dis­covered that I should achieve noth­ing until I had taught him the very rudi­ments of music: val­ues — semibreve, minim, crochet, quaver, etc. — bars, rhythm, tempo, and so on.

He had the greatest dif­fi­culty in remem­ber­ing any of this. Nor was that all. When, in listen­ing to music, he con­tem­plated move­ments, it was always neces­sary to remind him that he must make them accord with the tempo, its divi­sions and val­ues. It was exas­per­at­ing and we advanced at a snail’s pace. It was all the more try­ing because Nij­in­sky com­plic­ated and encumbered his dances bey­ond all reason, thus cre­at­ing dif­fi­culties for the dan­cers that were some­times impossible to over­come. This was due as much to his lack of exper­i­ence as to the com­plex­ity of a task with which he was unfamiliar.

Under these con­di­tions I did not want to leave him to his own devices, partly because of my kindly feel­ing for him but partly on account of my work and con­sid­er­a­tions as to its fate. I there­fore traveled a great deal so as to attend the rehears­als of the com­pany, which, through­out that winter, took place in the dif­fer­ent towns in which Diaghilev was giv­ing per­form­ances. The atmo­sphere was always heavy and stormy. It was evid­ent that the poor boy had been saddled with a task bey­ond his capacity.

He appeared to be quite uncon­scious both of his inad­equacy and of the fact that he had been given a role which, to put it shortly, he was incap­able of filling in so ser­i­ous an under­tak­ing as the Rus­sian Bal­let. See­ing that he was los­ing prestige with the com­pany but was strongly upheld by Diaghilev, he became pre­sump­tu­ous, capri­cious, and unman­age­able. The nat­ural res­ult was a series of pain­ful incid­ents which ser­i­ously com­plic­ated matters.

But writ­ing this more than twenty years after the event, Strav­in­sky still retained a fond­ness for Nij­in­sky who, by now, was in a men­tal asylum.

It should not be neces­sary for me to emphas­ize that in writ­ing all this I have not the least desire to cast any slur on the fame of this mag­ni­fi­cent artist. We were, as I have already said, always on the best of terms, and I have never ceased to admire his great tal­ent for dan­cing and mime. He will always live in my memory, and I hope in the memory of every­one who had the good for­tune to see him dance, as one of the most beau­ti­ful vis­ions that ever appeared on the stage.

But now that this great artist is, alas! the vic­tim of men­tal mal­ady, his name belongs to his­tory, and I should be false to his­tory if, in assess­ing his worth as an artist, I per­petu­ated the con­fu­sion which has arisen between his work as inter­preter and as cre­ator. From what I have said above it should be obvi­ous that Diaghilev him­self is mainly respons­ible for that con­fu­sion, though that does not in any way
detract from my feel­ing of deep admir­a­tion for my great depar­ted friend. It is true that I refrained at the time from telling Nij­in­sky what I thought of his efforts as a bal­let mas­ter. I did not like to do so. I had to spare his self-respect, and I knew in advance that his men­tal­ity and char­ac­ter would make any such con­ver­sa­tion alike pain­ful and use­less. On the other hand, I had no hes­it­a­tion in often talk­ing about
it to Diaghilev. He, how­ever, per­sisted in push­ing Nij­in­sky along that path, either because he regarded the gift of plastic vis­ion as the most import­ant factor in cho­reo­graphic art, or because he kept on hop­ing that the qual­it­ies which seemed lack­ing in Nij­in­sky would one day or another sud­denly mani­fest themselves.

Eye­wit­nesses in the audience

1913 review 100 years after the riot: The Rite of Spring by those who were thereA spec­tator in the audi­ence, Carl van Vec­htan, wrote,

A cer­tain part of the audi­ence was thrilled by what it con­sidered to be a blas­phem­ous attempt to des­troy music as an art, and swept away with wrath, began, very soon after the rise of the cur­tain, to make cat-calls and to offer aud­ible sug­ges­tions as to how the per­form­ance should pro­ceed. The orches­tra played unheard, except occa­sion­ally when a slight lull occurred. 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 top of my head with his fists. My emo­tion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time.

A cer­tain Louis Vuille­min said,

Some people invited to a few final rehears­als, went back out into Paris wild-looking and con­vinced they had reason to be.  They were of two kinds; both wild and both con­vinced.  “Mar­velous, mag­ni­fi­cent, splen­did, defin­it­ive!” cried some to every­one would listen for a moment.  “Abom­in­able, hate­ful, ridicu­lous, pre­ten­tious!” screamed the oth­ers even to those who did not have time to listen.  I leave it to you to sur­mise the kind of dam­age brought about by such pas­sion.  It spread through the entire pub­lic like wild-fire thirty-six hours before the cur­tain rose.  “Just you wait,” those con­vinced said, “we are about to wit­ness the great musical revolu­tion.  This even­ing is the appoin­ted time for the sym­phony of the future!” “Watch out,” warned the scep­tics, “They are out to make fun of us.  They take us for fools.  We must defend ourselves!” Res­ult: the cur­tain goes up—I should say even before the cur­tain went up—you could hear “OH!” and then they all began to sing, to hiss, to whistle.  Some clapped, some cried “Bravo!” some shrieked, some cheered.  Some hooted, some extolled.  And there you have the première of Le Sacre du Prin­temps.

And Gust­ave Linor noted,

The even­ing was hot in every sense of the term…Without ques­tion the new work presen­ted to the pub­lic last even­ing by MM. Astruc and Diaghilev is well gauged in places to shock, and con­tains cer­tain exag­ger­a­tions from the musical and espe­cially the cho­reo­graphic standpoints…

Part of the audi­ence dis­turbed the spec­tacle with laughter, with protests and even with “chut!” while another group countered this with every bit as much racket and in terms equally out of place.  This per­form­ance came close to degen­er­at­ing into a town meet­ing.  From every stand­point this is deplorable…

Four or five times the cur­tain rose again after the second act. M. Strav­in­sky, his col­lab­or­ator M. Nij­in­sky, and the bal­let corps were called the stage to receive hearty applause from one side, and one must say in fair­ness, protests from the other.

Stravinsky’s music wins out

Stravinsky Le Sacre du Printemps 384x500 100 years after the riot: The Rite of Spring by those who were thereA year later Strav­in­sky was able to put to one side the shock of the ini­tial reac­tions to his music and the ballet.

I think that it was in the month of April, 1914, that both the Sacre and Pet­roushka were played for the first time at a con­cert in Paris, Mon­teux being the con­ductor. It was a bril­liant renais­sance of the Sacre after the Théâtres des Champs-Élysées scan­dal. The hall was crowded. The audi­ence, with no scenery to dis­tract them, listened with con­cen­trated atten­tion and applauded with an enthu­si­asm I had been far from expect­ing and which greatly moved me. Cer­tain crit­ics who had cen­sured the Sacre the year before now openly admit­ted their mis­take. This con­quest of the pub­lic nat­ur­ally gave me intense and last­ing satisfaction.

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