Friday, January 10, 2014

What was Wrong with the Rite?


Previously we discussed Stravinsky’s famous The Rite of Spring. We know that this piece quickly became one of the most well-known works of the early 20th century. But why so controversial? At the premiere of the ballet in 1913, a riot began amongst members of the audience. Historians believe that it was the choreography created by dancer Vaclav Nijinsky that provoked the majority of controversy rather than Stravinsky’s score. Years following this scandalous premiere, here is what Stravinsky had to say about the experience:
 
“That the first performance of The Rite of Spring was attended by a scandal must be known to everybody. Strange as it may seem, however, I was unprepared for the explosion myself…                                               

Mild protests against the music could be heard from the very beginning of the performance. Then, when the curtain opened on the group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down, the storm broke. Cries of “Shut up!” came from behind me. I heard Florent Schmitt shout “Be quiet, you bitches of the sixteenth”; the “bitches” of the sixteenth arrondissement were, of course, the most elegant ladies in Paris. The uproar continued, however, and a few minutes later I left the hall in a rage; I was sitting on the right near the orchestra, and I remember slamming the door. I have never again been that angry. The music was so familiar to me; I loved it, and I could not understand why people who had not yet heard it wanted to protest in advance. I arrived in a fury backstage, where I saw Diaghilev flicking the house lights in a last effort to quiet the hall. For the rest of the performance I stood in the wings behind Nijinsky holding the tails of his frac, while he stood on a chair shouting numbers to the dancers, like a coxswain.”

The Rite of Spring is featured as tonight’s 6 o’clock symphony. Give it a listen and let me know if you can understand why it was controversial in 1913. Also, does the piece move your “affections” (emotions) in any particular way? If so, how? Did your enjoyment of the piece change now that you know the story behind the music?

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