The Rite of Spring
The premiere of The Rite of Spring by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on May 29, 1913, at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris, was a defining event of 20th-century cultural history. With this savage portrayal of pre-historic pagan ritual, the 19th century officially expired, on the eve of World War I. Stravinsky had prepared the way with his ballets The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911), but even most members of the sophisticated Paris audience in attendance found the Rite’s violence, brutal sonic force, aggressive dissonance, tonal ambiguity, and pounding rhythmic irregularity so unexpected and disturbing that they fell into a state of emotional shock.
Stravinsky spent the evening in a distracted condition that prevented him from appreciating the full impact of what had transpired. When he heard the “derisive laughter” that greeted the first bars of the prelude, he left the auditorium and took refuge backstage from the “terrific uproar” going on in the hall. Stravinsky had to prevent the choreographer Vaclav Nijinsky from running on stage to “create a scandal,” as he wrote in his Autobiography. The dancers could hardly hear the music because of the din.
In creating The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky turned to one of his strongest memories of his Russian childhood: the much-anticipated coming of spring after the long dark winter. “The violent Russian spring seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking,” he told his amanuensis Robert Craft. “That was the most wonderful event of every year.”
Stravinsky’s score boasts many innovations, but perhaps its most revolutionary feature is the prominence of rhythm as an organizing principle. Harmony, the central element in Western music since the 18th century, plays a much less important role. So does melody: the strikingly short themes (some derived from folk sources) do not carry either the main interest or the forward impetus. Instead, the various small sections of the action are structured around rhythmic ideas (or cells) repeated in complex and frequently asymmetrical patterns. What distinguished The Rite was not its pervasive harmonic dissonance – already extensively employed by Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, and Richard Strauss – but its fragmentary, dynamic structure, composed of small “irregularly formed” units that collide, in the words of Stravinsky biographer Stephen Walsh, “like so many particles in an atomic accelerator.”