Brow Beat

The Rite of Spring at 100

Coverage of riot in New York Times, June 7, 1913. 

In the annals of high-art “scandals,” the small riot sparked by the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet Le Sacre Du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) may be the most famous. Perhaps that’s because music appreciation teachers are desperately attracted to any anecdote that might demonstrate the excitement of classical music to skeptical students—or it could be because the story is just so wonderfully crazy.

The gist is this: From the moment that Stravinsky’s eerie, jagged opening melody wafted into their ears, the Parisian audience in the Théâtre des Champs Elysées was agitated. As the music became more brutal and rhythmically complex and Nijinsky’s provocative choreographing of the sacrifice of a young virgin unfolded, laughter and catcalls devolved into an outright riot, with the audience becoming so loud at points that the orchestra could not even be heard.

Exactly a century later, the blow-by-blow details of that succès de scandale are still debated, but the succès is not—The Rite of Spring is indisputably one of the most important and influential compositions of the 20th century. Over at the Guardian, British composer George Benjamin has an article exploring Stravinsky’s musical legacy, particularly in terms of his foregrounding of rhythm and percussion—a trend that would come to define modern music—as well as his relationship to contemporary musical trends like impressionism and atonality. Meanwhile, New Yorker critic Alex Ross delves deeper into the scandalous evening itself, citing historians who argue that artsy Parisians of the time were basically always on the lookout for a reason to riot.

And for those who can’t read music but nevertheless want to better understand the technical innovations in Stravinsky’s score, check out these new gorgeous graphical representations of both parts of the ballet from composer and software programmer Stephen Malinowski, who was recently interviewed about the project on NPR’s classical music blog, Deceptive Cadence.