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“The idea of The Rite of Spring came to me while I was still composing Firebird,” Igor Stravinsky recalled, 45 years after the ballet’s first performance in 1913, in his book Conversations. “I had dreamed of a scene of pagan ritual in which a chosen sacrificial virgin danced herself to death.” If Stravinsky is to be believed, this dream marked the beginning of a process that culminated in the premiere of one of the 20th century’s most important musical works.

Stravinsky’s music was meant to capture the spirit of the scenario, which he had outlined with the help of painter and ethnographer Nikolai Roerich and dancer and choreographer Mikhail Fokine during the spring and summer of 1910. Roerich had filled Stravinsky’s head with tales about all sorts of rituals from ancient Russia – divinations, sacrifices, dances, and so on – involving a variety of characters. The ballet that resulted revolves around the return of spring and the renewal of the earth through the sacrifice of a virgin. In his handwritten version of the story, Stravinsky described The Rite as “a musical choreographic work. It represents pagan Russia and is unified by a single idea: the mystery and the great surge of the creative power of spring….”

Stravinsky completed the score on March 29, 1913, and exactly two months later, the ballet premiered in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where it caused the famous scandal that ushered in modern music. Nijinsky’s choreography and the wild, unchecked power of Stravinsky’s score were something wholly new. Stravinsky wrote for one of his largest orchestras ever in The Rite, and he used it with an assurance and confidence one would hardly expect from a composer just out of his twenties and with only two big successes – The Firebird and Petrushka – behind him.

But those two scores, for all of their individuality and accomplishment, did not seem like they were leading to The Rite. What Stravinsky did was totally unexpected. The stage action during the ballet’s second half, leading up to the sacrifice, was enough to capture the attention of even that raucous audience at the first performance. Finally quiet, they could hear Stravinsky’s score and watch as Maria Piltz, the dancer who played the sacrificial victim, stood motionless as the ritual unfolded around her, gradually coming to life to perform her dance, with its angular contortions and tortured motions.

Her collapse, which, according to Stravinsky, represented “the annual cycle of forces which are born, and which fall again into the bosom of nature,” marked the end of another cycle, one which only a few years earlier had culminated in the ultra- Romanticism of Gustav Mahler and the young Richard Strauss. The “bosom of nature” had yielded something new in their stead: Stravinsky and musical modernism.

— John Mangum