Igor Stravinsky Remembers the “Riotous” Premiere of His Rite of Spring in 1913: “They Were Very Shocked. They Were Naive and Stupid People.”

It can be a lit­tle hard to take the word “riot” seri­ous­ly when applied to a con­tentious bal­let per­for­mance, giv­en how reg­u­lar­ly we now see police with machine guns, shields, and tanks rolling down city streets to over­pow­er protest­ing cit­i­zens. But that is the word that has come down to us for the fra­cas that greet­ed the debut of Serge Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913. The idea of a riot seems all the more incon­gru­ous, and fun­ny, when con­sid­ered in the light of Jean Cocteau’s descrip­tion of the crowd:

The smart audi­ence in tails and tulle, dia­monds and ospreys, was inter­spersed with the suits and ban­deaux of the aes­thet­ic crowd. The lat­ter would applaud nov­el­ty sim­ply to show their con­tempt for the peo­ple in the box­es… Innu­mer­able shades of snob­bery, super-snob­bery and invert­ed snob­bery were rep­re­sent­ed.

This Parisian smart set came togeth­er on that evening of May 29th expect­ing “some­thing poten­tial­ly out­ra­geous,” writes The Tele­graph’s clas­si­cal crit­ic Ivan Hewett. Diaghilev’s Bal­let Russ­es had pre­vi­ous­ly “entranced and shocked Paris.”

Stravin­sky was acquir­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as a musi­cal provo­ca­teur, hav­ing built his score for 1910’s The Fire­bird around the dis­so­nant “Devil’s Inter­val.” Nonethe­less, as the Rock­et­boom video below, “The Riot of Spring,” explains, audi­ences packed into the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées had no prepa­ra­tion for what they would see, and hear, when the cur­tain arose.

And what was that? A “high, almost stran­gled bas­soon melody,” Hewett writes, “soon draped with flut­ter­ing, twit­ter­ing wood­wind sounds” set to “pul­sat­ing rhythms.” Chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Vaslav Nijinsky’s dancers “seemed pulled down to earth. Their strange, jerky move­ments and awk­ward pos­es defied every canon of grace­ful­ness.” The audi­ence react­ed imme­di­ate­ly, shout­ing and attack­ing one anoth­er: “canes were bran­dished like men­ac­ing imple­ments of com­bat all over the the­ater.” Stravin­sky him­self remem­bers the the­ater­go­ers reac­tions with dis­dain in a short inter­view excerpt at the top.

“The storm broke,” he says, once the cur­tain opened on a group of “knock-kneed… Loli­tas jump­ing up and down.” The audi­ence “came for Scheherazade or Cleopa­tra, and they saw Le Sacre du Print­emps. They were very shocked. They were very naïve and stu­pid peo­ple.” Did Stravin­sky real­ly not antic­i­pate the degree of unrest his weird, dis­so­nant bal­let might pro­voke? It seems not. He hoped it would be a big­ger hit than his wide­ly-praised Petrush­ka of three years ear­li­er. “From all indi­ca­tions,” he had writ­ten to set design­er Nicholas Roerich, “I can see that this piece is bound to ‘emerge’ in a way that rarely hap­pens.” This proved true, but not at all in the way he meant it.

For his part, writes Hewett, Diaghilev “was hop­ing for some­thing more than an emer­gence. He want­ed a scan­dal.” James Wol­cott, in his account of the evening, Wild in the Seats, argues that the Russ­ian impre­sario had “a genius for pub­lic­i­ty that wouldn’t be matched until the advent of Andy Warhol and the pop cult of celebri­ty.” He knew he need­ed to rat­tle the “jad­ed ele­gants,” who “weren’t going to be stim­u­lat­ed by the same melt­ing, yearn­ing pan­tomime in pointe shoes.” The Rite of Spring pre­miere remains the most infa­mous scan­dal in the his­to­ry of bal­let to this day.

But while the sophis­ti­cates bat­tled it out in the aisles, scream­ing over the orches­tra, pulling down each other’s top hats, it’s said, and chal­leng­ing each oth­er to duels, a few spec­ta­tors, Cocteau includ­ed, sat entranced by the per­for­mance. The work, he lat­er wrote, “is, and will remain, a mas­ter­piece: a sym­pho­ny impreg­nat­ed with wild pathos, with earth in the throes of birth, nois­es of farm and camp, lit­tle melodies that come to us out of the depths of the cen­turies, the pant­i­ng of cat­tle, pro­found con­vul­sions of nature, pre­his­toric geor­gics.”

See the open­ing move­ments per­formed above by the Jof­frey Bal­let in 1987, and imag­ine your­self in the midst of Paris’s high­est soci­ety con­vuls­ing in a riotous out­cry. What was so upset­ting? “Per­haps the riot was a sign of dis­qui­et,” Hewett spec­u­lates, “a feel­ing that that the world had lost its moor­ings, and that bar­barism was about to be let loose in the streets.” Accord­ing to eye­wit­ness­es, some dis­turbed spec­ta­tors even called in the police. You can learn much more about this fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ry at the free Har­vard edX course, “Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring: Mod­ernism, Bal­let, and Riots.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Visu­al­ized in a Com­put­er Ani­ma­tion

Stravinsky’s “Ille­gal” Arrange­ment of “The Star Span­gled Ban­ner” (1944)

Watch 82-Year-Old Igor Stravin­sky Con­duct The Fire­bird, the Bal­let Mas­ter­piece That First Made Him Famous (1965)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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