The Stravinsky Skirmish

by Ivan Ye

Professor Dolan mentioned last week that Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused a huge riot at its premiere. While The Rite of Spring was Stravinsky’s most famous work and greatly influenced artists after him, it initially received very negative criticism. There were many factors that contributed to the negative reaction to his work.

The Rite of Spring premiered on May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, which had opened two months prior. The program included Les Sylphides, The Rite of Spring, Weber’s Le Spectre de la Rose, and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. Since the program was a premiere, ticket prices were doubled, amounting to 35,000 francs, a large sum at the time. Thus, the audience mostly consisted of the wealthy and fashionable group, who preferred and expected traditional ballet and beautiful music. While the program advertised the ballet as “real art” and art that would escape the traditional boundaries, the theater quickly sold out. It was a highly anticipated premiere.

The Rite of Spring was the second piece on the program. Now, we watched a remake of Stravinsky’s ballet performance in class. The ballet was weird; everything didn’t seem natural. The choreography included sharp angles instead of the traditional smooth and rounded curves. Stravinsky’s music was also rather dissonant. The audience was uncomfortable with the performance and showed their displeasure by hissing and shouting.

According to eyewitnesses accounts, the audience became rowdy during the introduction, literally as soon as the piece started. When the dancers entered the stage and began their dance, the audience became so loud that it was almost impossible to hear the music, according to an assistant. Soon, the audience was split into two groups: those in favor of Stravinsky’s work and those in opposition. The two groups argued and ended up fighting each other (a full out brawl), all while the dancers and the orchestra continued. During the intermission between Part 1 and Part 2, the police intervened and calmed the audience. However, they proved ineffective when the audience rioted again in Part 2.

After the show, critics were harsh in their reviews, dismissing the music as noise and calling the dance a parody of traditional ballet. Stravinsky himself had fled the theater before the show ended. It was a shocking reaction to a brand new type of music and ballet. The audience at the time was so entrenched in traditional music and ballet that they couldn’t view Stravinsky’s work with an open mind. Have we viewed new and radically different music the same way? Who could have known that this hated work would go on to be so famous and influential? It is an interesting event that shows that maybe we should view music with an open mind.