Classical music aficionados are not usually associated with rowdiness and mayhem. They tend to be rather well-behaved and if anything, they might express their disapproval by simplifying not clapping loudly enough.
However, there was one major exception to this. On a single night in Paris about 110 years ago, a crowd erupted into a riot over the premiere of a ballet.
Learn more about classical music’s most notorious evening, the premiere of the Rite of Spring, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
To understand how a ballet turned into a riot there are a few things that need to be understood to make sense of the events which took place.
The early 20th century was a time of great change in the arts. Most of you are probably more familiar with some of the changes which took place in the visual arts.
Artists like Picasso and Gustav Klimt were revolutionizing painting and the very meaning of what a painting was. They went far beyond the simple abstractions of impressionist painters.
As with painting, there was a revolution going on in music as well.
Believe it or not, the revolution in music actually started back as early as Beethoven. One of the very last works he wrote before he died was called the Great Fugue.
I’m guessing that most of you have probably never heard of it, let alone heard it, but it is the most un-Beethoven like a piece of music you’ll ever hear.
Much of this new music, just like new art, was very polarizing. You had traditionalists who hated it, and there were Avant-Garde, bohemians who embraced it.
Often times they reject or support music, just because it was new, and not on the merits of the work itself. Music was, just like for many people today, a way of signaling their cultural identity.
Paris was in many ways the epicenter for this artistic movement.
Now let me introduce Igor Stravinsky.
He was a Russian, born between the Finnish border and St. Petersburg in 1882. His father was the principal bass singer at the Imperial Opera, Saint Petersburg, and his mother was an accomplished amateur musician from a wealthy Russian family.
He was extremely bright with an aptitude for music. His parents wanted him to study law, but he eventually pursued a full-time career as a composer.
He studied under the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov from 1905 to 1908.
He first achieved fame when he was commissioned to write three works for the Ballets Russes and their famed impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Despite being a Russian ballet company, they never actually performed in Russia. They traveled for about two decades around Europe and North America and became what some consider the most influential ballet company in the 20th century.
The first of the three ballets was the Firebird Suite, first performed in 1910. This is probably one of his most famous works and the finale has been performed during Olympic ceremonies and it is part of the Disney animated picture Fantasia 2000. The Firebird is based on a Russian fairy tale and it was the work that made Stravinsky famous.
If you haven’t heard it, I highly recommend going and listening to the Firebird finale. I think you’ll like it and it is one of my favorite pieces.
The second ballet was Petrushka which was released in 1911. It tells the story of three puppets. This is by far the least well-known of the three ballets.
The final ballet was the Rite of Spring.
Stravinsky was working on the Rite of Spring since 1910 at least.
The premise of the piece is that of a group of Slavic pagans who are celebrating the coming of spring, and one girl is sacrificed to the god of spring by dancing herself to death.
The genesis of the Rite of Spring may have stemmed from a poem from Russian poet Sergey Gorodetsky.
Stravinsky himself said that the music came first, and the story then grew out of the music.
Some have also speculated that the premise of Slavic pagans might have stemmed from Parisian stereotypes about Russians at the time. They viewed Russians as a more primitive people, and this was Stravinsky’s way of playing off that stereotype.
The premise of the ballet wasn’t the controversial part.
The first controversial thing was the music.
The music was not like the Firebird, which was more traditional.
He wrote the work for an enormous orchestra of 99 members, which was really difficult to do for a ballet because there usually isn’t room for that many people in an orchestra pit.
Moreover, the music was incredibly complicated. It contained many note combinations that most musicians had never encountered before.
Before the premiere, they had two weeks’ worth of rehearsals, which was unusual for a performance. The reason was simply due to the complexity of the music.
The orchestra conductor was Pierre Monteux, and he eventually had to tell the musicians to stop interrupting him when they thought there was an error in the sheet music. It wasn’t an error, that was just how it was written.
The other controversial part was the choreography.
The choreographer was Vaslav Nijinsky. He was a well-known dancer, but he didn’t have a lot of experience as a choreographer.
The dancing was not traditional ballet. The dancers were not wearing tights and tutus. The dress was more like something you’d see native people from North America wear. It really didn’t have anything Slavic about it, even though that was the original intent.
The moves of the dancers were not fluid movies you’d normally see in a ballet. They seemed jerky and random.
The big night of the premiere was May 29, 1913. It was to be held at recently opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Here I need to explain that there is a great deal of controversy over exactly what happened on the night in question. There are different versions of the story, the facts are not always consistent, and many of the parties involved have very different interpretations as to the cause of what happened.
The reaction from the audience began immediately.
The opening notes of the performance are of a solo bassoon. It is a very odd choice as the bassoon is almost never given a solo, and never usually with notes that high.
Some people in the audience began laughing with the first notes.
Immediately, at the end of the overture, the audience starts becoming very loud and vocal.
As the performance went on, the reaction from the crowd grew louder and more boisterous.
Eventually, they became so loud that the dancers couldn’t hear the orchestra.
I should note that the booing wasn’t universal. In fact, there were two very opposed factions in attendance.
In Paris at this time, most ballets and classical performances had two different groups that attended.
The first was upper-class, fashionable people who were there to be seen and enjoy traditional music.
The other group was younger, bohemians who were open to the avant-guard and wanted to hear new music.
It was the first group that was jeering the performance, and the second group eventually began to respond.
Vegetables were thrown at the stage, which of course raises the question of who brought vegetables to a ballet?
It wasn’t long before the two groups began fighting with each other inside the theater.
With people resorting to fisticuffs, the police were called in, and they addressed the crowd during the intermission.
….yes, all of that occurred before the intermission.
When the second half resumed, the crowd went right back at it.
More shouting, more fights, more vegetables, more chaos.
Yet, despite everything happening in the audience, the performance kept ongoing, however, Stravinsky was so disgusted by the audience that he left his seat to watch from the wings of the stage.
However, for the very last scene, the audience quieted down and, believe it or not, at the end there was a standing ovation and several curtain calls. This is one fact about the evening which many people are in agreement.
Nonetheless, fights continued into the streets after the performance, and the next day, there was at least one formal duel between audience goers.
In the end, 40 people were arrested because of the rioting at a ballet.
The controversy about the premier continued the next day.
The composers Claude Debuse and Maurice Ravel were in attendance and they thought it was a work of genius.
Camille Saint-Saëns was also in attendance and stormed out, due to what he thought was an abuse of the bassoon.
At the second performance, the composer Giacomo Puccini attended and he called it the work of a “madman” and “sheer cacophony”.
Reviews of the performance the next day were as polarizing as the audience was. Some lauded it, and others panned it.
However, history has been far kinder to the Rite of Spring and of Igor Stravinsky.
Less than a year later, the Rite of Spring was performed as a concert without any dancing, and it was a huge success. The crowd this time was so enthusiastic that they carried Stravinsky on their shoulders out into the street.
The Rite of Spring is now considered perhaps the most important work of classical music in the 20th century.
The controversy about the premier thrust Stravinsky into the position as the greatest, or at least best known, living composer in the world.
There have been more books written about the Rite of Spring than any other work of classical music.
Many people define the start of 20th-century music with the Rite of Spring.
Over 100 years later, there is still debate as to what the riot was about exactly.
Were people rioting about the music, or about the dancing? Were they objecting to Stravinsky, or to Nijinsky?
Was this fundamentally a clash of musical tastes or was it a clash of social classes?
According to some theories, the entire episode might have been set up to earn free publicity.
In the end, it probably doesn’t really matter and at this point, we probably won’t really know.
What we do know is that one of the most influential compositions of the 20th century began with having vegetables thrown at the stage and fist fights.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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