Composers Inspiration
The Riot of Spring!

Nicholas Roerich

Nicholas Roerich

100 years ago, on 29 May 1913, the city of Paris witnessed the premiere performance of a musical work that exerted a tremendously powerful influence on the music of the 20th century. The Rite of Spring catapulted Stravinsky to international stardom and defined modernity in the minds of audiences and critics alike. As we all know, it “began with a bassoon and ended in a brawl.” Details are sketchy, and it might all have been a staged publicity stunt. In the event, a scuffle broke out between two factions in the audience, and angry Parisians hurdled vegetables and other objects at the stage. Surprisingly, the performance continued with the choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky shouting out commands to the dancers from backstage, while Sergei Diaghilev — the impresario who founded the “Ballets Russes” flashed the house lights in an attempt to calm the audience. Roughly 40 audience members were ejected, and the music critic at Le Figaro described the debut “as an exercise in puerile barbarity…we are sorry to see an artist such as M. Stravinsky involves himself in this disconcerting adventure.”

imagesStravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Stravinsky himself was troubled and visibly upset by the audience’s response. Yet it remains unclear if audiences reacted against Nijinsky’s choreography, which saw dancers in whimsical costumes performing convulsive spasms, or Stravinsky’s angular, dissonant and rather unpredictable music. Truth be told, both aspects would have been sufficiently scandalous to rattle the audience. However, the primary and underlying reason for the near riotous discontent was the artistic exploration of the primitive in a city of sophisticates. Although it is very tempting to connect the Rite of Spring with the achievements of earlier Parisian artists — such as Gaugin, Matisse and Picasso, who discovered the appeal of African and Oceanic paintings and sculptures while defining a new ideal of beauty in the realm of Cubism — the ideas of Primitivism had already been thoroughly absorbed by Russia’s artistic leaders by the time of the Rite. In his subtitle to the work, which reads “Scenes of Pagan Russia,” Stravinsky announces not only the national origin, but also the country’s interest in Primitivism. The most important influence on the entire production was the Russian painter, writer, theosophist, philosopher and archaeologist, Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). Roerich started his career at The Russian Private Opera, established in 1885 by the industrialist and philanthropist Savva Mamontov. He painted innovative designs for operas by Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Dargomyzhsky, Serov and Borodin that were not merely decorative, but became an integral part of the theater productions.

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky

An ardent and passionate archaeologist, Roerich personally led a number of expeditions and excavations. In addition, during two long trips through Russia, he completed dozens of paintings — he was considered the most talented painter of Russia’s ancient past — of monasteries, churches and other monument that he published in his highly acclaimed Architectural Studies in 1904. He also designed a Maltese cross for the tomb of Rimsky-Korsakov and various places of worship. By May 1910, Stravinsky was discussing his “fleeting vision… I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of Spring” with Roerich. They established a working title, “The Great Sacrifice,” and both artists went to work. For his designs, Roerich consulted a 12th-century compendium of early pagan customs and Alexander Afanasyev’s study of peasant folklore and pagan history. Stravinsky in turn, studied an anthology of Lithuanian folk songs — he openly acknowledged borrowing the opening bassoon melody from that source — and Rimsky-Korsakov’s One Hundred Russian National Songs. As such, one of the most revolutionary and iconic works, with the premier described as “the most important single moment in the history of 20th century Music,” is thoroughly steeped in the artistic and musical traditions of Russia. Claude Debussy wrote shortly after the premier, “It is not necessary to tell you of the joy to see a very beautiful thing that will be more beautiful still with the passage of time. For me, who descends the other slope of the hill but keep in intense passion for music, it is a special satisfaction to tell you how much you have enlarged the boundaries of the permissible in the empire of sound.” And Pierre Boulez remarked, “The Rite renders null and void the distinction between pure and programme music, between music that is formal and that which is expressive. The ritual of ‘Pagan Russia’ attains a dimension quite beyond its point of departure; it has become the ritual and myth of modern music. And quite clearly initial audiences were unable and unwilling to embrace that paradigm change.

Joffrey Ballet 1989 Rite of Spring

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