Written by Stefan Aune
|From the Joffrey Ballet's rendition of Rite Of Spring using the original 1913 set and costumes|
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.