On May 29, 1913, Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring ” or “Le Sacre du Printemps” premiered for the first time in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées. The music was the background for a ballet choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky and produced by Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes. The idea behind it was a pagan girl who dances herself to death. It was unlike all other music – atonal, asymmetrical, and assonant – and it literally caused a riot. There were catcalls, boos, arguments between proponents and opponents, and fist fights in the aisles. The police were called, but they were unable to restore order. Diaghilev kept turning the house-lights on and off to try to calm the crowd.
Others say that it was the choreography and rough, canvas costumes, rather than primarily the music that caused the riot, but Stravinsky, who sought the notoriety that the scandal fomented, appropriated the “blame” and history has generally accepted this version of the facts. The ballet closed after the scheduled 6 performances. For many years, the music was performed without the ballet. The US premier was in Philadelphia and the Orchestra reprised their original performance in Disney’s Fantasia (1940).
The story of the riot has shown up in a 2005 BBC movie entitled Riot at the Rite as well as the 2009 film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky that traces the troubled relationship between the two creative forces.
Le Sacre du Printemps (luh sackruh due prahntem) actually means “the consecration of spring.” The title in Stravinsky’s native Russian is “Sacred Spring.” Each language brings its own nuances of meaning. I recently heard the Philadelphia Orchestra re-stage the work sans riots. I can’t say I was a major fan. I prefer music I can hum when I leave the Kimmel Center.
The Rite of Spring, the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski
- Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées Stays Cutting Edge (wqxr.org)
- Joffrey Ballet Reconstructs “Le Sacre du Printemps” (kcet.org)
- Stravinsky and film (bibliolore.org)
- 100th birthday celebrations for ‘The Rite of Spring’ in Seattle (seattletimes.com)