Earthy Anecdotes: The Premiere of The Rite of Spring

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On 29 May 1913, The Rite of Spring, the ballet and orchestral work composed by Igor Stravinsky, premiered at the newly-opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. With choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and stage and costume design by Nicholas Roerich, the ballet was part of the 1913 season for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Jeux, the last work for orchestra written by Claude Debussy, also with choreography by Nijinsky, had premiered at the head of the season in the same theatre just two weeks earlier.

The premiere of The Rite of Spring would prove one of the most scandalous in the history of the ballet. The manager of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the impresario Gabriel Astruc, had been eager to secure the Ballets Russes for the 1913 season: doubling their fee on the previous year, and working to ensure that his new theatre, which he had commissioned of the architect Auguste Perret, would open in time for their run to commence. The theatre, in the Art Deco style and making innovative use of reinforced concrete, opened on 2 April, and hosted performances by composers including Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, and Camille Saint-Saëns, and by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, before the arrival of the Ballets Russes and Jeux come the middle of May. Astruc had first brought the Ballets Russes to Paris in 1909, and though the 1913 season was considered a monumental success, the cost of the theatre ruined him financially.

Elaborating on the evening of 29 May 1913, various critics were divided on the cause of all the clamour. While Stravinsky afterwards sought to portray it as a response to his radical composition, arguing that the first bars of his prelude had been met with the audience’s derisive laughter, others suggested that Nijinsky’s choreography or Roerich’s costumes were equally to blame. The writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau even asserted that the theatre itself was at fault:

‘Le Sacre du Printemps was performed in a new hall without patina and too comfortable and too cold for a public accustomed to elbowing emotions in the warmth of red plush and gilt. I do not believe that Sacre would have received a more correct reception in a less pretentious setting; but this luxurious hall seemed at once to symbolize the misunderstanding that set at odds a decadent audience and a work of youthful vigor.’

And focusing on the behaviour of the audience, Cocteau wrote:

‘the audience played the role it had to play: it immediately rebelled. It laughed, scoffed, whistled, cat-called, and perhaps might have got tired in the long run if the mob of the esthetes and a few musicians in their excessive zeal had not insulted and even jostled the people in the boxes. The uproar degenerated into a free-for-all.’

Meanwhile Stravinsky retreated backstage, and twenty years hence offered this behind-the-scenes account:

‘During the whole performance I was at Nijinsky’s side in the wings. He was standing on a chair, screaming “sixteen, seventeen, eighteen” – they had their own method of counting to keep time. Naturally, the poor dancers could hear nothing by reason of the row in the auditorium and the sound of their own dance steps. I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes, for he was furious, and ready to dash on to the stage at any moment and create a scandal. Diaghileff kept ordering the electricians to turn the lights on or off, hoping in that way to put a stop to the noise. That is all I can remember about the first performance.’

The Ballets Russes conductor, Pierre Monteux – who despite urging the professionalism of the musicians, struggled with Stravinsky’s work and remained ambivalent to it throughout his life – remembered:

‘The audience remained quiet for the first two minutes. Then came boos and cat-calls from the gallery, soon after from lower floors. Neighbors began to hit each other over the head with fists, canes or whatever came to hand. Soon this anger was concentrated against the dancers, and then, more particularly, against the orchestra, the direct perpetrator of the musical crime. Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on. The end of the performance was greeted by the arrival of the gendarmes. Strawinsky had disappeared through a window backstage, to wander disconsolately along the streets of Paris.’

And the visiting American Carl Van Vechten’s description of the scene was comic:

‘A certain part of the audience was thrilled by what it considered to be a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art, and, swept away with wrath, began very soon after the rise of the curtain, to make cat-calls and to offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed. The orchestra played unheard, except occasionally when a slight lull occurred. The young man seated behind me in the box stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was labouring betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time.’

For more on The Rite of Spring – including the ballet’s musical, cultural, and archaeological backgrounds; and its conception and development by Stravinsky and Roerich – read ‘The Scythians and The Rite of Spring’. And view, read, and listen to this assortment of related documents.