Friday, September 30, 2011

Classical Music and Rioting - Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring

Written by Stefan Aune of Fein Violins

Classical music is traditionally thought of as a quiet, reserved, and dignified world. Formal wear and polite silences are the standard, and it would certainly be considered a faux pas to dance around during a concert or yell "play freebird" at the orchestra . However, every once in a while the cummerbunds and formalities are traded for boos, jeers, and fist fights in the aisle. The "classical music riot" has been a consistent enough phenomenon over the years to warrant its own Wikipedia article - the most famous example being the Paris première of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite Of Spring in 1913. The Rite Of Spring caused such a disturbance that the police were brought in at intermission, but were unable to quell the rioting audience. The publicity of the première, combined with it's groundbreaking tonality and genius, have made The Rite of Spring one of the iconic musical works of the twentieth century.

Dancers form a circle arround a central figure; their arms up over their heads and putting one foot in and another out.
The Joffrey Ballet's rendition of Rite Of Spring using the original 1913 set and costumes

Photo by Herb Migdoll, image from National Endowment for the Arts

The concept of The Rite of Spring was a collaboration between Stravinsky and Russian painter Nicholas Roerich. Together they constructed a scene in which a young girl dances herself to death during a pagan ceremony in order to appease the God of spring. The piece was composed for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes during 1912 and 1913, with choreography handled by Vaslav Nijinsky. Stravinksy's composition was groundbreaking for its dissonance, particularly the opening bassoon solo, which allegedly caused composer Camille Saint-Saëns to storm out of the performance (although the veracity of that account is questioned by scholars). It was this dissonance, along with the complex and sexually suggestive dancing, that caused the crowd to react so strongly to the première. The intensity of the sounds, motions, and themes of The Rite caused numerous shouting matches, with those in favor of the performance shouting down those against, and vice-versa. The noise levels grew throughout the performance, and fist fights broke out in the aisles. The arrival of Paris police during intermission failed to quell the rioting, which continued for the duration of the performance. 

The Rite of Spring evoked, in the words of musicologist Richard Taruskin, "the darker aspects of primitivism - biologism, sacrifice of the individual to the community, absence of compassion, submission to compulsion, all within a context defined by Russian or Slavic national folklore." To quote Taruskin again, "ballet historians seem to offer a sentimental reading of The Rite when they write that 'the girl is forthrightly sent to her death in order to benefit the community,' and add that 'the situation could hardly be more horrible.' On the contrary, the sacrificial dance is presented as anything but horrible - and that's what's horrible." Taruskin, disagreeing with much of the publicity and scholarship regarding the ballet, argues that it was the thematic intensity of The Rite, more than the music, which caused the audience to react so strongly. Irregardless of whether it was the music, the dancing, the theme, or (most likely) the sum total of these parts, The Rite definetly caused the audience to riot that night in Paris. Naturally the enthusiasm of the rioting audience caused a torrent of publicity, and Diaghilev reportedly told Stravinsky that the audiences' reaction "was exactly what I wanted." The tumultuous première has gone down in history as one of classical musics more colorful moments. 

While it is certainly comical to picture the well-dressed crowd at a Paris ballet throwing punches like they are brawling in a dive bar, the crowd's reaction to The Rite of Spring is also a testament to Stravinsky's music, and the choreography and interpretation of the dancers. Clearly the performance ignited the passions of the audience in one way or another, succeeding in eliciting a strong emotional response. While I certainly don't think rioting should be standard fare during classical music performances (only once in a while, to get the blood flowing), I do hope for musical performances that demand some sort of emotional response. I'd prefer fighting to sleeping, and shouting to boredom, and Stravinsky certainly succeeded in that regard. The Rite of Spring remains a seminal work in the music world, and was further immortalized in Disney's classic film Fantasia in 1940, meaning that generations of children and adults can enjoy Stravinsky's music without having to risk being engulfed in a riot.

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