Stuns Audiences

The first performance of The Rite of Spring startled the music and dance worlds with aggressive rhythms, cacophonous sounds, primitive, sexually oriented dance, and stark sets.

Summary of Event

In 1897, Sergei Diaghilev, a former law student, brought his organizational talents to the Russian artistic society Mir Iskusstva (world of art). He sponsored the society’s painting exhibitions and edited its controversial journal. When the journal ceased publication in 1904, he continued to sponsor the exhibitions. In the period 1906-1908, Diaghilev presented a series of Russian cultural exhibitions—concerts, paintings, and operas—in Paris. When interest in these exhibitions exceeded his expectations, he invited stars from the Russian Imperial Ballet—including Anna Pavlova, Tamara Platonovna Karsavina, Michel Fokine, and the soon-to-be-legendary Vaslav Nijinsky—to dance in Paris. Dance;ballet
Ballet;The Rite of Spring[Rite of Spring]
Rite of Spring, The (ballet)
[kw]Rite of Spring Stuns Audiences, The (May 29, 1913)
Ballet;The Rite of Spring[Rite of Spring]
Rite of Spring, The (ballet)
[g]France;May 29, 1913: The Rite of Spring Stuns Audiences[03420]
[c]Music;May 29, 1913: The Rite of Spring Stuns Audiences[03420]
[c]Dance;May 29, 1913: The Rite of Spring Stuns Audiences[03420]
Stravinsky, Igor
Diaghilev, Sergei
Nijinsky, Vaslav
Monteux, Pierre
Roerich, Nikolay Konstantinovich

In 1909, Diaghilev organized the Ballets Russes, Ballets Russes
Ballet companies;Ballets Russes a company that presented Russian dance styles to Paris audiences and, in the process, revolutionized ballet. The repertoire of the Ballets Russes included L’Oiseau de feu (pr. 1910; The Firebird) and Petrushka (pr. 1911), with music by Igor Stravinsky, and Schéhérazade (pr. 1910), performed to the music of Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. The company’s chief set designer was Léon Bakst, whose sense of color influenced not only stage designs but also women’s fashions. Diaghilev’s other artists from Russia, Alexandre Benois and Nikolay Konstantinovich Roerich, like Bakst, were members of Mir Iskusstva. Diaghilev also employed illustrious Western painters such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Henri Matisse and the composer Claude Debussy.

The most dramatic moment in the history of the Ballets Russes was the premiere of Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) in Paris on May 29, 1913. The idea for the ballet came to Stravinsky when he was finishing The Firebird in 1910. Both Roerich and Diaghilev were excited by the concept and encouraged Stravinsky to write it, but shortly after beginning work on the project, he hit upon the idea for another ballet that became Petrushka. He did not finish the score for The Rite of Spring until 1912; the ballet’s production was then delayed by Diaghilev, who wanted Nijinsky to complete the choreography for Debussy’s music inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem L’Après-midi d’un faune (1876; The Afternoon of the Faun, 1956). This permitted Stravinsky time to alter the orchestration while he was also working on other projects.

Following the Ballets Russes Paris season of 1912, Stravinsky went to London in June for the English premiere of The Firebird and then returned to Russia to do more work on The Rite of Spring. In the autumn, he went to Berlin with the Ballets Russes to attend a performance of Petrushka. In Berlin, Stravinsky met Arnold Schoenberg, Anton von Webern, and Alban Berg, the famous trio of modern German composers.

The Paris season of the Ballets Russes opened in May, 1913, in a new venue, the Théâtre des Champs Élysées, and the first week was devoted to the premiere performance of the ballet Jeux (games), with music by Claude Debussy; the second week was the opera Boris Godunov, by Modest Mussorgsky. The third week introduced The Rite of Spring. It is difficult to say whether the music or the dance was responsible for most of the controversy that arose from the ballet’s opening night. Nijinsky’s choreography of Stravinsky’s work, in which Marie Piltz Piltz, Marie danced the leading role, demonstrated spasmodic and frenzied motions that were little understood even by Nijinsky’s followers. The cacophonous music caused some derisive laughter during the introduction. Audience indignation increased when the dancers appeared and increased again when supporters retaliated against the protesters. The uproar was such that hardly a note could be heard, and the noise continued unabated throughout the entire presentation. The event nearly caused a riot in the newly built theater. Many in the audience, in fact, were fighting to keep order and to restrain the protesters; others were literally engaged in fisticuffs. The company was able to stage two more performances of The Rite of Spring before going to London.

Based on a pagan story from ancient Russia, The Rite of Spring consisted of thirteen episodes in two parts, the “Adoration of the Earth” and the “Sacrifice.” The bassoon solo that opened the piece was the only folk theme employed by the composer. Although the remainder of the music evoked faint images of Russian folk ideas, it was all purely original. In the ballet’s closing scene, a group of elders sat in a circle while a chosen maiden (Piltz) danced to total exhaustion and death to ensure that the god of spring would allow the season to emerge once more from the bowels of the earth.

Stravinsky’s music was designed to convey turmoil and dissonance rather than the idyllic image of spring so often depicted by artists. The composer was immensely aided in his libretto by Roerich, who was also an archaeologist who studied the ancient Slavs. Fittingly, the thirty-four-minute work was dedicated to Roerich.

Unfortunately, Stravinsky was unhappy with Nijinsky’s choreography for the work. Whereas Stravinsky had conceived his music for simple, mass movements, Nijinsky forced the dancers to experiment with complicated styles that seemed unnatural. Stravinsky recognized that Nijinsky was the most exciting dancer he had ever seen, but he also recognized that Nijinsky knew almost nothing about music and had been forced into the role of choreographer by his patron, Diaghilev. Consequently, Nijinsky’s difficult steps in The Rite of Spring could not be completed without a slowing of the music, a development that naturally displeased the composer. Finally, for a passage that Stravinsky had imagined as a scene of nearly motionless young dancers (the “Danses des adolescents”), Nijinsky employed what the composer characterized as a jumping competition.

Stravinsky’s cataclysmic score, with its complex rhythms and changing meters (not one bar was followed or preceded by a similar meter), led Nijinsky to choreograph dances that audience members saw as mere frenzy. When Stravinsky went backstage during the performance, he saw Nijinsky yelling out the beat by numbers so that the dancers could continue. Nijinsky was so furious at the crowd’s behavior that Stravinsky had to hold him back to keep him from darting out onto the stage. In short, the event may have been the most thunderous outburst in musical history.

Diaghilev, who may have been pleased with the reaction, had a premonition that there would be a strong response to Stravinsky’s music. Despite a successful dress rehearsal that went smoothly before invited guests, Diaghilev warned the dancers before the first performance to concentrate on their movements and not on the reactions of the audience, and he gave orders to conductor Pierre Monteux and the orchestra to complete the music without interruptions at all costs. When the commotion broke out, Diaghilev ordered the theater’s electricians to turn the lights off and on, in a desperate attempt to calm the storm.


When the company opened The Rite of Spring in London, news of the Paris event was well known. To forestall another riot, Edward Evans, a critic for the Pall Mall Gazette, delivered a short introduction to the audience. The reception in London was much better; the reaction was mixed, but at least half the audience applauded through six or seven curtain calls. Shortly after the Paris opening, Stravinsky became ill with typhoid fever and was confined to a nursing home for six weeks; Monteux wrote to the ill composer that he was ashamed of his own countrymen and pleased at the reaction in England.

The Rite of Spring was performed as a concert piece in Moscow and St. Petersburg in February, 1914. Stravinsky’s friend and fellow artist Alexandre Benois told the composer that he longed to hear it again, but Benois confessed that he was “completely bewildered” by the music and wondered whether it had been conducted correctly. About half the audience in St. Petersburg walked out near the beginning, but most of those who remained applauded with enthusiasm. Sergei Prokofiev wrote that he was so moved by the music that he was unable to recover from its effects. Stravinsky’s own mother did not hear the music until a twenty-fifth anniversary performance in 1938; when she did, she admitted that it was not her type of music.

Monteux returned to Paris to conduct a concert version of The Rite of Spring and Petrushka in the Casino de Paris on April 5, 1914. This concert was so enthusiastically received that audience members carried Stravinsky from the hall on their shoulders; the composer later wrote to Monteux to praise his expert rendering of the two pieces. On June 7, 1914, Eugene Goossens conducted the two works in Queen’s Hall in London to an appreciative audience. In 1924, Monteux introduced The Rite of Spring to audiences in Boston and New York, with great success in both cities.

Stravinsky was somewhat displeased with Monteux’s recording of The Rite of Spring in the 1930’s, but their relationship was not damaged. On the occasion of Stravinsky’s seventy-fifth birthday in 1957, Monteux sent him a letter expressing his appreciation for the composer’s confidence in him when he was young and noting that his own performances of those early ballets had enabled him to rise from the ranks. In 1963, a year before his death, the elderly Monteux again conducted The Rite of Spring in a fiftieth anniversary concert.

Stravinsky made a few revisions in the piece. In March, 1913, before the premiere, Monteux suggested a number of changes in orchestration when it was clear to him that several times the flutes or the horns could not be heard clearly. In 1921, Stravinsky made a few more changes and was pleased when Léonide Massine designed new choreography. Ernest Ansermet conducted the new version in Paris in December of that year, with Lydia Sokolova dancing the part of the sacrificial maiden. In 1943, Stravinsky made further revisions to the last part of the composition.

Critics disagree on how much Stravinsky revolutionized music in the twentieth century. Certainly, he raised rhythm to a degree previously unknown. Commentators note that whereas melody dominated the era of classicism, harmony overshadowed rhythm and melody in the Romantic period. What Stravinsky did in The Rite of Spring was to raise rhythm to the point where it subordinated both harmony and melody, confining the latter to small, constantly repeated motifs. In fact, in The Rite of Spring, the whole orchestra became for long stretches a kind of sustained percussion instrument. The rhythmic fury of the piece, devoid of symmetry, was intended to reflect the savage, even brutal eruption of the new season, like the joy experienced from the pains of labor in childbirth.

The controversy surrounding The Rite of Spring certainly did not harm the Ballets Russes. Bolstered by émigré dancers from the Russian Imperial Ballet, the company continued its spectacularly successful Paris run until Diaghilev’s death in 1929. Dance;ballet
Ballet;The Rite of Spring[Rite of Spring]
Rite of Spring, The (ballet)

Further Reading

  • Buckle, Richard. Diaghilev. New York: Atheneum, 1979. A thorough and readable account. The section titled “The Fokine-Nijinsky Period” is especially useful, as it explores the reasons for Diaghilev’s separation from Nijinsky and also from his sister, Nijinska.
  • _______. Nijinsky. 1970. Reprint. London: Orion, 1998. One of the most complete presentations available about Nijinsky and his contemporaries. A standard, reliable work, revealing especially the shocking sources of the dancer’s inspiration and his difficult relationship with his patron. Includes voluminous explanatory endnotes.
  • Petrov, Vsevolod N., and Aleksandr Kamenskii. The World of Art Movement in Twentieth Century Russia. Leningrad: Aurora, 1991. A truly magnificent work consisting of separate historical essays by the two authors. Presents biographical articles on Benois, Bakst, Diaghilev, and Roerich, and includes a color photograph of one of Roerich’s sets for The Rite of Spring. One chapter covers Diaghilev’s musical productions from 1907 to 1924. Includes numerous photographs and reproductions of paintings.
  • Stravinsky, Igor. An Autobiography. 1936. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. According to Stravinsky, because so many of his thoughts and statements had been misrepresented, it was necessary for him to tell the story of his life clearly and accurately, even if he was rather young to write such a work. He notes that he did not consider himself a revolutionary and that the inspiration for The Rite of Spring was a special case of the music flowing from the conception of the story.
  • _______. Stravinsky: Selected Correspondence. Translated and edited by Robert Craft. Vol. 2. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. Edited by a conductor, music historian, and close friend of Stravinsky. Particularly relevant are sections covering Stravinsky’s extensive correspondence with Diaghilev and Monteux and letters from Nijinsky.
  • Stravinsky, Igor, and Robert Craft. Memories and Commentaries. Compiled and edited by Robert Craft. London: Faber & Faber, 2002. This is a one-volume edition that pulls together material from five earlier volumes. Consists of Stravinsky’s responses to Craft’s questions about Stravinsky’s childhood experiences in Russia, the concerts and dancers in St. Petersburg, and the Diaghilev years. The composer’s comments on his contemporaries are fresh, warm, and amazingly candid.
  • Strobel, Heinrich. Stravinsky: Classical Humanist. Translated by Hans Rosenwald. 1955. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1973. A short, readable text for the nonspecialist who wishes to understand the musicality of the early Stravinsky pieces. Argues that Stravinsky was less of a revolutionary than is generally imagined.
  • Vlad, Roman. Stravinsky. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. A short but useful analysis of the composer. Reviews the arguments about whether Stravinsky was a reactionary, a classicist, or a revolutionary.
  • White, Eric Walter. Stravinsky: A Critical Survey, 1882-1946. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1997. Analyzes and comments on the evolution of Stravinsky’s works. Includes lists of works and recordings, bibliography, and index.
  • _______. Stravinsky: The Composer and His Works. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Provides one of the most detailed accounts available of the events leading up to the production of The Rite of Spring.

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