Claude Debussy famously described Richard Wagner’s music as “a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn.”
The French composer was not the only one who saw Wagner as the culmination of an old era, rather than the beginning of a new one. Friedrich Nietzsche called Wagner’s music “the song of a dying swan.” And the Austrian critic Eduard Hanslick wrote, “Wagner’s art recognizes only superlatives, and a superlative has no future. It is an end, not a beginning.”
What, then, should we say about Igor Stravinsky’s ballet score The Rite of Spring, a century after it was first performed? Who could deny that this music was the bright glow of a newborn sun on the horizon, three decades after Wagner’s death marked an “end” of musical history? Surely its rhythms were revolutionary and its har-monies were unprecedented, n’est-ce pas?
The events surrounding the Rite’s creation and premiere have become the stuff of legend, making fact and fiction hard to disentangle. Evidently, Stravinsky began to think about a new ballet set in pagan Russia in 1910—and he consulted Nicholas Roerich, an artist, mystic and folklorist to create a dramatic framework for the piece. He wrote most of the piece in Clarens, Switzerland, during 1911 and 1912, in a spartan little room, furnished only with a piano, a table and a pair of chairs.
The Rite was intended for performance by Sergei Diaghilev’s Paris-based dance troupe, the Ballets Russes. Stravinsky and the Russian impresario had already collaborated on two ballets: The Firebird, premiered in 1910, and Petrouchka, first staged in 1912. Both had been great successes with the Parisian public.
However, this new work, premiered on May 29, 1913, at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, elicited a very different response. Current scholarly thought attributes the famous “riot” more to Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography than to Stravinsky’s score. But whatever the reasons, the audience divided itself into pro and anti factions—with the anti-Rite contingent determined to noisily disrupt the performance. Soon the din in the hall was such that the dancers on stage could barely hear the orchestra. As the story goes, fights began to break out in the audience, and the police were called in to restore order. According to some accounts, Stravinsky fled the theatre, escaping out a back window. And according to other accounts, the publicity-hungry Diaghilev told some friends, following the performance, that the Rite’s reception was “just what we wanted.”
The year 1913 was a pivotal moment for western civilization. It marked the end point of the “long 19th century,” just before the old political and social order was swept away by World War One. And it was also the year of New York’s Armoury Show of modern art, which introduced America to cubism, fauvism and other European trends. Stravinsky’s ballet was an intrinsic part of the forward drive of art. But nothing is ever entirely new or without foundation, and the Rite was no exception.
Many of its stylistic devices—complex and dissonant harmonies, and constantly shifting rhythms—can be traced back to earlier works by Stravinsky: his Petrouchka, or his short Fireworks music. His interest in obscuring tonality owes much to Debussy, and his compatriot Alexander Scriabin pursued similar ends (through very different means) in his later works. Also, in keeping with the Rite’s evocation of a mysterious pre-historic past—a fanciful portrayal of a human sacrifice in pagan Russia—the score is shot through with ancient folk melodies. Finally, it is worth noting that the massive orchestra required to play the Rite owes much to the instrumental demands of Wagner’s operas. If there had been no Ring, there might have been no Rite.
Yet if the Rite was not entirely revolutionary, it seemed revolutionary, drawing together various ideas incubating in European music in a bold and unifying way. And when the work was subsequently performed at an orchestral concert (with no ballet) in Paris in 1914, the enthusiastic response it won demonstrated that there was an audience for this new kind of music.
This is why the Rite quickly became—and remains, to this day—so much more than an excellent composition. More than any other single work from the early 20th century, it encapsulated the spirit of modernism in music. It quickly became a de facto manifesto, plain for all to read: to be truly modern, a musical composition should be tonally distressed, melodically angular, rhythmically irregular and vividly outlandish in its instrumentation. Composers, performers, critics and audiences might argue about whether these developments were good or bad things, but the terms of the debate were firmly established.
For better or worse, the Rite has cast a very long shadow over the 20th century. Virtually all the era’s esteemed composers—a list that includes such diverse figures as Arnold Schoenberg, Béla Bartók and Olivier Messiaen—are deeply indebted to it. Even dissenting composers, striving to escape the gravitational pull of the Rite’s musical values, found the piece impossible to ignore. Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (composed in 1936) is in many ways a rejection of modernism, but it is hard to imagine how it could have been written without the Rite.
Stravinsky did very well by his scandalous ballet: it became the chief pillar supporting his reputation as a brilliant, daring and strikingly original composer. Yet in his later compositions, he turned away from primitivism, in favour of a sophisticated neo-classical style. When he died, in New York in 1971, he was mourned as the greatest Russian composer of the 20th century. (However, in recent decades, Dmitri Shostakovich has largely usurped this crown.)
A century after the Rite’s pounding rhythms were first heard, it has become a repertoire item. Indeed, no professional orchestra can hold its collective head high if it has not mastered the piece. It has been interpreted and recorded by a host of conductors, and even found its way into the soundtrack of Disney’s animated film Fantasia. Yet to this day it does not enjoy the consensus-based appeal of Beethoven’s symphonies or Verdi’s operas—at least, not among “ordinary” concert goers. The Rite retains a frisson of controversy, with opinion divided as to whether it is gloriously thrilling or disgustingly ugly.
And the musical revolution that Stravinsky invigorated is also still with us: today there are several thousand composers in the world who adhere (more or less) to the tenets of modernism. But now they are the old guard, adherents to a musical ethos that once enjoyed the status of an “official” style. They are largely ignored by the wider world, and have been challenged by a phalanx of post-modern composers who do not share their values: Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt, among others. Modernism is no longer the newest kid on the block.
This little essay began with mention of sunrises and sunsets, and the possibility of confusing one with the other. So what may we say of the Rite? Was it the dawn of a new era of modernism? Or was it a dramatic and colourful sunset—the decline of the “classical” composer in the 20th century? One thing is certain: it was and is an astonishing work. Few century-old cultural artifacts can dazzle as this music does—and that is reason enough to celebrate The Rite of Spring in its centennial year.