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Published on 2nd August 2016

Stravinksy and the Ballet Russes: from a riot to a revolution

They may be audience favourites today, but at the time of the premieres, The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite Of Spring were truly revolutionary scores, writes Maxim Boon.

May 29, 1913: the day classical music changed forever. 

On this date, a packed house at the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris witnessed the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s scandalising collaboration with the brilliant, young ballet radical Vaslav Nijinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps, or to use its better known English translation, The Rite of Spring.

The performance would come to be known as one of the most infamous of the century. First-hand accounts recorded it as a riotous shambles. Nijinsky’s avant-garde, pointe-less choreography provoked such a din of abuse that some witnesses claimed the score was nearly inaudible. The mind-bending complexity and rhythmic asymmetry of Stravinsky’s music kept the orchestra perpetually teetering on the brink of collapse. The iconoclastic savagery of Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s prehistoric ballet seemed to devolve the irascible masses into a rabid mob.

Shouts came from gallery and sniggers from the stalls; members of the audience pulled their hats over their eyes and ears; the bourgeois gentry brandished their canes like cudgels while the bohèmes gazed on, entranced by the spectacle; and at least one person was challenged to a duel. The scene is closer to a boozed-up brawl than a pleasant night at the theatre, although some historians concede that the details of that fateful evening have likely been embellished by more than a century of retellings. 

Exaggerations notwithstanding, the legend of the riot at The Rite has proven to be an enduring bit of trivia, held up as a glorious example of a bygone age when art mattered enough to throw a punch. The reality may not have been quite as outrageous, but, nonetheless, there’s no doubt that Stravinsky’s score that night created a fault line in the history of music. Never before had the orchestral medium been used to create an expression of such raw, untempered brutality; music that is at once primordial and yet almost incomprehensibly modern. May 29, 2013, marked the beginning of a new age. From this day on, no composer would write a note without genuflecting towards or against the seismic influence of Stravinsky.

In isolation, it’s perhaps unsurprising that The Rite has earned this mythic reputation. From the throttled yawp of the opening bassoon solo, emerging at an almost inconceivably high pitch, to the leviathan cellular convulsions of the sacrificial dance, almost every aspect of the music seemed to serve an aesthetic so alien that it seemed totally severed from the centuries of Western classical tradition that had preceded it. As one critic put it, “The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect,” with another observing that the stark, relentless nature of the piece was “like an animal that turns in its cage and never tires of butting its head against the bars.” 

For other composers and dance-makers throughout the 20th century, the piece was a watershed moment offering a gateway to stylistic and expressive freedom that had, until that point, been blocked by unreceptive audiences and stiflingly uptight critics. Stravinsky himself was more than happy to play up to the fabled reputation, creating a fug of mystical intrigue around it. He would famously confess that the idea for the work came to him in a dream, and insisted that the music arrived as if by spiritual inspiration. “I was guided by no system whatever,” he said. “I had only my ear to help me; I heard, and wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed.” The Rite became elevated from a work of groundbreaking innovation to an almost sacred accomplishment, with Stravinsky as its ordained shaman.

And yet in truth, the creation of this piece was not the spontaneous product of communion with the divine. It was part of a continuum, without which the sacrosanct status of The Rite of Spring might never have been possible. It was a combination of raw talent, historical luck, artistic serendipity and bloody-minded ambition that created the perfect conditions to propel Stravinsky from obscurity to immortality. 

For Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson, this aspect of Stravinsky’s personality, writ large across the three ballets commissioned for the Ballet Russes – The FirebirdPetrushka and The Rite of Spring – offers a particularly fascinating perspective on the composer. 

“Stravinsky was a very ambitious young man from the start, but you can really see this in action when he started to become a public figure. These three ballets brought him more notoriety than he ever expected, and I think this was something he really enjoyed. He began very shrewdly to craft his public persona, which is something he would be concerned with for the rest of his life,” Robertson says. “Stravinsky was a very real case of someone who was constantly reacting to his environment, weighing up who he was when he started, where he wanted to be, and perhaps most importantly, how he wanted others to perceive him.”

The first step in Stravinsky’s journey to international acclaim began in St. Petersburg in 1909, with a fortuitous encounter with the impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Upon hearing a performance of the early orchestral work – Feu d’Artifice – Diaghilev was excited at the discovery of a bright, new compositional talent. His driving goal was to bring the lustre and skill of Russian culture to Western audiences, and after impressing Parisians with a concert series, followed by a production of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, Diaghilev turned his attention to one of Russia’s most prized art forms: ballet. Despite Stravinsky being relatively unknown in Russia, and completely obscure everywhere else, Diaghilev commissioned the composer to score the Ballet Russes’s first completely original work, The Firebird, based on a cobbled together story drawing on Russian folklore. Stravinsky was just 26-years old.

The significance of this moment is particularly moving for Robertson. “The greatest accomplishments in the arts are truly extraordinary when you consider the overwhelming odds against them happening. As opposed to something like the sciences, where to some extent you’re looking out for things you could discover, and if one person doesn’t do it another person probably will, the arts require a very specific environment for them to flourish and survive,” he observes. “The moment you have a person capable of creating something like Stravinsky’s ballets, that figure exists as a monument. They are timeless, ageless, immovable. But imagine for a moment that Diaghilev had contracted some 19th-century illness that had taken him away when he was a young man. I’m sure Stravinsky would have written something, but those milestones wouldn’t be there. It’s fascinating to look at the intersections of individual people, instead of the historical impulse that we tend to think of as driving the history of art forward.”

Fate came close to snatching away this crucial leg-up for Stravinsky. Four composers had already turned down the opportunity to score the ballet, including the highly regarded Alexander Glazunov, leaving Diaghilev exasperated and somewhat desperate. Engaging the untested Stravinsky was a gamble, but to say it merely paid off would be an understatement. The ballet opened on June 25, 1910; by the morning of June 26, Stravinsky was famous. Elites of every sort – socialites, academics, moneyed patrons and the aristocracy – all clamoured for his attention. This would Stravinsky's indoctrination into the bosom of the glamorous upper-echelons of society, where the composer would remain for the rest of his life. As he later wrote of the first performance, “I sat in Diaghilev’s box, where at intermission, dowagers, aged Egerias of the Ballet, intellectuals, balletomanes and artists appeared. I met for the first time Proust, Giraudoux, Paul Morand and more.”

In many of the composer’s own accounts of these early performances, there’s a sense of nonchalant humble-bragging. However, Robertson’s investigation of the original score reveals another image, of the young, enthusiastic composer anxiously offering a make-or-break work. It’s a compelling view of a man who is so often thought of as the aloof elder statesman of the intelligentsia. “As a gift, Boulez gave me the manuscript reproduction of Stravinsky’s Firebird score, which is absolutely beautiful, but one thing that’s particularly interesting is that you can see as he gets nearer to the end, as that deadline is fast approaching, the handwriting changes. It gets less neat and more urgent, the lines that were carefully ruled become these rapid slashes, and those tempo markings or instructions that were calligraphic perfection at the beginning become this scrawl,” Robertson explains. “You can see in the score what enormous pressure Stravinsky was underwriting this piece. It’s an extraordinary document.”

Less than a year later, in June 1911, Stravinsky’s second ballet, Petrushka – a work that in Robertson’s opinion is more musically radical than the Rite – cemented the composer’s reputation as a formidable talent. Here, Stravinsky showed a particular skill for articulating emotion and character through music. Based on the Russian equivalent of Punch and Judy, the puppet protagonists express rudimentary, childlike personalities. They are not completely developed, but fundamentally they share a connection to our humanity, and perhaps to even our most prized human quality, our souls.

At first glance, it’s Stravinsky’s departure from romantic ideals of emotion that separates The Firebird and Petrushka from their violent brother, The Rite of Spring. But viewed from a different angle, Robertson believes the paradigm shift heralded by The Rite, a piece that sparked riots and changed the way music was thought about forever, was an inevitable response to the societal flux brewing in Europe at the beginning of 20th century. Long distance travel had been made possible by the industrial revolution and an interest in exoticism from the Orient and Africa had become popular. Hedonism and bohemian intellectualism was harboured, even celebrated in cosmopolitan centres like Paris. Perhaps most importantly, the world was just a few short years from the Great War, which would permanently alter our understanding of brutality, a theme that, by comparison, The Rite of Spring is wholly naive about. In other words, this work, considered so ahead of its time, could likely only have appeared in that place and at that moment. 

“This piece ends up being a crossroads, but even more so like a meeting place of all of these different influences, the kind of thing the futurists were looking for, with their art of noise and the idea of sexual and political liberation,” Robertson says. “The idea of this thaw in the forces that had been holding economies and societies in check, all having this tectonic shift, all of that is beautifully captured in a single piece of music, and the interesting thing is, Nijinsky, the choreographer, and Stravinsky, the composer, had their antennae perfectly tuned to the frequencies of the time.”

First published 2 Aug 2016, for Limelight Magazine.