Music06 Dec 2010 12:53 pm
Stravinsky first achieved international fame with three ballets commissioned by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (Russian Ballets): The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911/1947), and The Rite of Spring (1913).
The Rite, whose premiere famously provoked a riot, transformed the way in which subsequent composers thought about rhythmic structure, and was largely responsible for Stravinsky’s enduring reputation as a musical revolutionary, pushing the boundaries of musical design. The premiere involved one of the most famous classical music riots in history. The intensely rhythmic score and primitive scenario shocked audiences more accustomed to the demure conventions of classical ballet. Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography was a radical departure from classical ballet.
The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start, the audience began to boo loudly. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance. Fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the première allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet’s opening bars (though Stravinsky later said “I do not know who invented the story that he was present at, but soon walked out of, the premiere.”
Harvard University professor Thomas Kelly suggests that one of the reasons that the Paris premiere of “The Rite of Spring” created such a furor was that it shattered everyone’s expectations. The evening’s program began innocently with a performance of “Les Sylphides.” However, as the follow-up piece, “The Rite of Spring” turned out to be anything but spring-like.
One of the dancers recalled that Vaslav Nijinsky’s shocking choreography was physically unnatural to perform. “With every leap we landed heavily enough to jar every organ in us.” The music itself was angular, dissonant and totally unpredictable. In the introduction, Stravinksy called for a bassoon to play higher in its range than anyone else had ever done. In fact, the instrument was virtually unrecognizable as a bassoon. When the curtain rose and the dancing began, there appeared a musical theme without a melody, only a loud, pulsating, dissonant chord with jarring, irregular accents. The audience responded to the ballet with such a din of hisses and catcalls that the performers could barely hear each other.
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