Deceptive Cadence
4:55 am
Sat May 25, 2013

Then The Curtain Opened: The Bracing Impact Of Stravinsky's 'Rite'

Originally published on Sat May 25, 2013 12:19 pm

One hundred years ago this week, a ballet premiered that changed the art world. Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du PrintempsThe Rite of Spring — was first seen by the public on May 29, 1913, in Paris. As the orchestra played The Rite's swirling introduction, the audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées began to murmur. Then the curtain opened.

Dancers dressed in folkloric costumes began to move unpredictably to the pounding chords. In the theater, the rumbles grew to pandemonium — hoots and jeers, arguments and even fistfights between traditionalists and modernists in the audience. It became difficult to hear the music.

The composer, who was sitting in the theater, described the scene in a 1965 interview, included in the documentary Stravinsky.

"When the curtain opened on a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down ... the storm broke," Stravinsky said. "They came for Scheherazade, or for Cleopatra. And they saw Le Sacre du Printemps. They were very shocked. They were very naïve and stupid people."

New Yorker music critic Alex Ross says Stravinsky shocked the audience with a revolution in harmony.

"You have these two chords slammed together: E Major — actually F-Flat Major, as it's spelled in the score — and an E-Flat Dominant 7th chord," Ross explains. "These are two adjacent chords. They're dissonant. They're being jammed together. And that's a harsh sound, and he keeps insisting on it. That chord repeats and repeats and repeats, pounding away."

And then, Ross says, there was Stravinsky's revolution in rhythm.

"It seems as though at first he's just going to have this regular pulse. But then these accents start landing in unexpected places, and you can't quite get the pattern of it," Ross says. "It's as if you're in a boxing ring, and this sort of brilliant fighter is coming at you from all directions with these jabs."

As unsettling as the music was, the audience at the premiere of The Rite of Spring was even more shocked by Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography.

"This was not ballet," says Lynn Garafola, a professor of dance at Barnard College and author of a history called Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. "It was a style of expressive performance that was extremely violent, and that seemed to depart completely from conventional ballet vocabulary.

"It included a lot of stamping. It included jumps. It didn't aspire to be ethereal — in other words, to look like jumps that could hang in the air. ... They seemed to go up simply to crash down into the earth. And then there were parts where they were simply trembling, when their hands were in fists, doing something that seemed, for all the world, to be primitive."

The story itself is primitive: An ancient Russian tribe makes a sacrifice to the gods of fertility; a virgin is chosen; and she dances herself to death.

But Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev, who staged the ballet, was also intent on presenting modern works. Stravinsky had already written two scores for the company, The Firebird and Petrushka. He said the idea for The Rite of Spring came to him in a dream. He also claimed a sort of mystical creative process.

"Very little immediate tradition lies behind Le Sacre du Printemps, and no theory," Stravinsky said. "I had only my ear to help me. I heard, and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which the Sacre passed."

However it came to Stravinsky, Alex Ross says the music still has an impact.

"The Rite felt completely different. And that has remained a very powerful influence," Ross says. "Even the youngest composers coming to the fore today listen to The Rite and think, 'my God.' It still sounds new to them."

The Rite of Spring influenced 20th century composers from Bartok and Stockhausen to Steve Reich and the American minimalists. Within a year of the premiere, the score was hailed by critics and audiences as a masterpiece.

As for the ballet, Nijinksy's original choreography was abandoned after the initial run, and wouldn't be seen again until the 1980s.

But historian Lynn Garafola says the choreography had an equally dramatic impact on the world of dance.

"I think it was the beginning of what eventually becomes modern dance. It meant that it was possible to create a large-scale work — not a work for a soloist — that departed from the traditional vocabularies of ballet," she says. "This was a new kind of ballet, a new kind of choreography, and a new kind of music."

In the century since its premiere, The Rite of Spring has become a symbol of what's modern. And Igor Stravinsky knew better than to try a sequel.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Also 100 years ago - this week, in fact - a ballet premiered that changed the art world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE RITE OF SPRING")

SIMON: Igor Stravinsky's now-famous opening notes for "The Rite of Spring" were first heard by the public May 29, 1913, in Paris. Staged by Sergei Diaghilev and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, the radical new ballet became a kind of signpost for the 20th century, as Tom Vitale reports.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: As the orchestra played the swirling introduction to "The Rite of Spring," the audience at the Champs-Elysees Theatre began to murmur. Then the curtain opened.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE RITE OF SPRING")

VITALE: Dancers dressed in folkloric costumes began to move unpredictably to the pounding chords. In the theater, the rumbles grew to pandemonium - hoots and jeers, arguments and even fist-fights between traditionalists and modernists in the seats. It became difficult to hear the music. The composer, who was sitting in the theater, described the scene in a 1965 interview included in the documentary "Igor Stravinsky."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IGOR STRAVINSKY")

IGOR STRAVINSKY: When the curtain opened on a group of knock-kneed Lolitas jumping up and down, the storm broke.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE RITE OF SPRING")

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IGOR STRAVINSKY")

STRAVINSKY: They came for Scheherazade, or for Cleopatra. And they saw Le Sacre du Printemps. They were very shocked.

VITALE: Stravinsky shocked the audience with a revolution in harmony, says New Yorker music critic Alex Ross.

ALEX ROSS: You have these two chords slammed together. E major - actually F flat major, as it's spelled in the score - and an E flat dominant 7th chord. Two adjacent chords. They're dissonant. They're being jammed together. And that's a harsh sound, and he keeps insisting on it. That chord repeats and repeats and repeats, pounding away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE RITE OF SPRING")

VITALE: And then, there was Stravinsky's revolution in rhythm.

ROSS: It seems as though at first he's just going to have this sort of regular pulse. But then these accents start landing in unexpected places. And you can't quite get the pattern of it. It goes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8; and it's as if you're in a boxing ring, and this sort of brilliant fighter is sort of coming at you from all directions with these jabs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE RITE OF SPRING")

VITALE: As unsettling as the music was, the audience at the premiere of "The Rite of Spring" was even more shocked by Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography.

LYNN GARAFOLA: This was not ballet. It was a style of expressive performance that was extremely violent and that seemed to depart completely from conventional ballet vocabulary.

VITALE: Lynn Garafola is Professor of Dance at Barnard College and author of a history called "Diaghilev's Ballet Russes."

GARAFOLA: It included a lot of stamping. It included jumps that didn't aspire to be ethereal. In other words, to look like jumps that could hang in the air, but rather were hard. They seemed to go up simply to crash down into the earth. And then there were parts where their hands were in fists, doing something that seemed for all the world to be primitive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE RITE OF SPRING")

VITALE: The story is primitive: an ancient Russian tribe makes a sacrifice to the gods of fertility; a virgin is chosen and she dances herself to death. But Ballet Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev was also intent on presenting modern works. Stravinsky had already composed two scores for the company. He said the idea for "The Rite of Spring" came to him in a dream. He also claimed a sort of mystical creative process.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IGOR STRAVINSKY")

STRAVINSKY: I was guided by no system whatsoever in Le Sacre du Printemps. Very little immediate tradition lies behind Le Sacre du Printemps, and no theory. I had only my ear to help me. I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which the Sacre passed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE RITE OF SPRING")

VITALE: However it came to the composer, critic Alex Ross says the music still has an impact.

ROSS: "The Rite" felt completely different. And that has remained a very powerful influence on even the youngest composers coming to the fore today; listen to "The Rite" and think, oh my God, this still sounds new to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE RITE OF SPRING")

VITALE: "The Rite of Spring" influenced 20th century composers, from Bartok and Stockhausen to Steve Reich and the American Minimalists. Within a year of the premiere, the score was hailed by critics and audiences as a masterpiece. As for the ballet, Nijinksy's original choreography was abandoned after the initial run and not seen again until the 1980s. But historian Lynn Garafola says the choreography had an equally dramatic impact on the world of dance.

GARAFOLA: I think it was the beginning of what eventually becomes modern dance. It meant that it was possible to create a large-scale work - not a work for a soloist- that departed from the traditional vocabularies of ballet. This was a new kind of ballet, a new kind of choreography, and a new kind of music.

VITALE: In the century since its premiere, "The Rite of Spring" has become a symbol of what's modern. And Igor Stravinsky knew better than to try a sequel. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE RITE OF SPRING")

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.