Wednesday, 29 May 2013

"The Twentieth Century Incarnate": Rite of Spring

On May 29, 1913, the premiere of 'Le Sacre du Printemps' (The Rite of Spring), by a young Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky, caused a riot in Paris among many audience members who saw this revolutionary new work as "a blasphemous attempt to destroy music". 

However, 'Le Sacre du Printemps' became extraordinarily influential almost from the beginning and, one hundred years after its first controversial performance, remains one of the most frequently recorded and performed musical works in the world (see video below). Today, American radio station WQXR presents Rite of Spring Fever, a 24-hour marathon of different interpretations of Stravinsky's masterpiece.

"Its theme was elemental, the rejuvenation of earth in spring. The form was a celebration of pagan rites in which a sacrificial maiden dances herself to death to renew the life of the soil.

He opened not with a bang, as Richard Strauss had advised, but with a slow trembling of woodwinds as if to suggest the physical mystery of budding. As the curtain rose on tribal games and dances, the music became vibrant and frenetic, with primeval rhythms, the chant of trumpets, the driving beat of machinery, jazz metres and pitiless drums never before used with such power and abandon. It rose in intensity and excitement to a blazing climaz and all the promise of a new age. It was the Twentieth Century incarnate. It reached at one stride a peak of modern music that was to dominate later generations. It was to the Twentieth Century what Beethoven's Eroica was to the Nineteenth, and, like it, never surpassed.

The premiere, conducted by Monteux on May 29, 1913, created a riot in the theatre. The abandonment of understood harmony, melody and structure seemed musical anarchy. People felt they were hearing a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art and responded with howls and catcalls and derisive laughter. Counter-demonstrators bellowed defiance. One young man became so excited he began to beat rhythmically with his fists on the head of an American in the audience whose own emotion was so great that "I did not feel the blows for some time." A beautifully gowned lady in a box stood up and slapped the face of a man hissing in an adjoining box. The composer Saint-Saens indignantly rose and left the hall; another composer, Ravel, shouted, "Genius!"

The dancers could not hear the music above the uproar and Nijinsky, who had choreographed the ballet, stood in the wings pounding out the rhythm with his fists and shouting in despair "Ras, Dwa, Tri!" Monteux threw desperate glances to Diaghilev, who signed to him to keep on playing and shouted to the audience to let the piece be heard. "Listen first, hiss afterwards!" screamed Gabriel Astruc, the French manager, in a rage.

When it was over, the audience streamed out to continue their battle in the cafes and the critics to carry it to the press, but, as the music had hardly been heard, opinion was largely emotion. Not until a year later, when the music was played again in Paris as a concert in April 1914, was it recognised for what it was.

(from Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of The World Before the War (1890-1914)

Alex Ross: "It may not be entirely a coincidence that the centennial of the Rite of Spring scandal follows closely upon the Wagner bicentennial. At last fall's "Reassessing the Rite" conference, which I covered for The New Yorker, Annegret Fauser brought up the Wagner-Rite relationship, noting that in the weeks leading up to the première the French papers had been full of Wagneriana, including accounts of the legendary Tannhäuser riot at the Opéra in 1861. In a way, Fauser suggested, Paris audiences may have been primed to restage that affair: Stravinsky would be the new Wagner, the foreign musician of the future. It's a fascinating speculation — although, of course, Parisian audiences needed little historical prompting to go into culture-riot mode. Nijinsky's suggestive dancing in Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun" had set off a brouhaha the previous year."

The opening of 'Le Sacre du Printemps':

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