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
Even those collaborating on the new piece had their doubts. Pierre Monteux, the conductor of the premiere, 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.
And 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
According 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
A 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 premiere 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
A 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.