Rite of Passage: Why Stravinsky’s Masterpiece Is Still Important 100 Years Later

“The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it instead.” — Igor Stravinsky

Courtesy of ToneDeaf Comics.
Courtesy of Tone Deaf Comics.

On May 29, 1913, a packed audience — among them Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein (basically, the cast of Midnight in Paris), as well as music-types Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Giacomo Puccini — crowded into the brand-new Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, to see the premiere of a ballet about a sacrificial dance with music by a little-known Russian composer and choreography by the Ballet Russes founder‘s not-so-secret lover.  The curtains drew open… and what happened next is the stuff of legend.  And by that I mean, no one actually knows what happened next.  The infamous “riot” at the Rite of Spring premiere has been said to have been ill-mannered grumblings from the audience, pre-planned fruit-flinging, turn-of-the-century class warfare, unprompted police violence, or even a  marketing ploy planted by Serge Diaghilev himself.  For some interesting historical facts and speculations on the riot, check out this article from the Guardian, and this one from BBC News.  Whatever it is that happened that day one-hundred years ago, it helped to cement the Rite of Spring as one of the most important, scandalous, and riveting pieces of music ever written.

There’s nothing particularly special about a piece of classical music turning 100 years old.  There are pieces in our repertoire that have two, or three, or eight centuries of history behind them, and we still perform these pieces and enjoy them well enough.  But when we play a Mozart symphony, we think of powdered wigs and German princes.  When we play a Shostakovich string quartet — even more recent than the Rite of Spring — we think of Soviet turmoil.  Most classical music has an unshakable historical context — and that’s a good thing!  Music, like all art, functions as a sort of social commentary; without context, Mozart and Shostakovich wouldn’t be particularly important or interesting.  But the Rite of Spring — written on the eve of World War I, the Russian Revolution, the invention of the pop-up toaster — has the unique ability to stand freely of its context.  It could have been written yesterday, and we’d experience it in a similar way.  The Rite of Spring is pretty much timeless.  Listen to the wonderful Esa-Pekka Salonen discuss Rite‘s timelessness:


As Maestro Salonen explains, the biggest challenge in dealing with a piece like the Rite of Spring is keeping it new, maintaining the shock value.  It’s a bit ironic, given the whole aforementioned timelessness situation, that Rite could ever be overdone or lose its shock value.  But with timelessness comes popularity, and with popularity comes redundancy.  We need to remember that this stuff once incited a riot; we can’t let it calm down.  Conductors and performers must push themselves to devise new, creative ways of presenting this piece to their audience.  In an interview with ReutersSalonen said, “The miracle of that piece is the eternal youth of it.  It’s so fresh, it still kicks ass.”  Keeping the Rite of Spring fresh and kick-ass is a challenge, but it’s also the reason Rite is so important for the future of classical music…

Some submissions from the Pacific Symphony's Re:Rite of Spring project.  Top: "Coastal Sensation #28" by Hung Viet Nguyen; Middle: "Futurama Fry" meme; Bottom: "Stone Temple Goddess" by Robin Repp.  All images courtesy of reriteofspring.org.
Some Re:Rite of Spring submissions, top to bottom: “Coastal Sensation #28” (Hung Viet Nguyen); “Futurama Fry” (uncredited); “Stone Temple Goddess” (Robin Repp). All images courtesy of reriteofspring.org.

In the effort to present the Rite of Spring in new, exciting, shocking ways, the classical music world has come up with some incredibly creative solutions.  Some of these solutions are interactive, inviting audience members to participate in the music-making or storytelling — for example, the Pacific Symphony‘s social media-driven Re:Rite of Spring (so cool!), and NPR’s video contest held just for the centennial.  Other solutions have sought to change the way we hear the piece, perhaps by altering the instrumentation — Rite of Spring for woodwind quintet?  Jazz trio? — or by entirely rewriting it — a Rite of Spring set in modern India?  All of these projects change the experience of the Rite of Spring in some way, but none of them diminish it.  Isn’t that awesome, that we can turn a piece of music on its head and still experience the century-old, riot-inciting essence of that music?  What if we invited such creativity for all classical music?  The possibilities would be endless.

Beyond all that, though — looking past the timelessness and malleability of the piece — the Rite of Spring is a plain good piece of music.  The story of the ballet — the whole sacrificial dance ritual thing — is creepy and exciting.  The music is primal and terrifying and intriguing, one of those pieces that grabs your attention and holds on tight.  There are moments that lull you into a false sense of safety before taking you by surprise and keeping you on edge.  Watching the orchestra play is an experience in itself — the conductor looks like one of the original Nijinsky dancers, the timpanists are all over the place, the wind section is three times as big and shiny as usual, the strings look spastic as their bows transform the bizarre rhythms into something visual and palpable.  The Rite of Spring laid the foundation for all the amazing musical experimentation that came to define the 20th century.  A person’s first Rite of Spring experience is often transformative, and for many people is the reason they developed an interest in classical music.  It’s a rite of passage, an initiation into a world of music with the power to excite and awe.  Listen to some music greats talk about their first Rite experiences here.  And, if for some reason you haven’t, check out an amazing complete performance of the Rite of Spring here.  What have your Rite of Spring experiences been like?  Share in the comments!

The Rite of Spring is considered so important, it was included on the Voyager spacecraft’s “interstellar record” to represent the music of planet Earth.  This afternoon, the Mariinsky Orchestra & Ballet, under conductor Valery Gergiev, will give an anniversary performance of Rite at the place where it all started, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, featuring a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s crazy choreography.  You can watch the live webcast here at 2:50 p.m. EST.

Happy birthday, Rite of Spring!  Here’s to another hundred years of awesome.


Additional interesting resources: “Then The Curtain Opened: The Bracing Impact Of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite'” (NPR) & “How Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has shaped 100 years of music” (Guardian)

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