When I was fourteen, I got a stereo record player for Christmas. It was portable, so-called because it had a handle and wasn’t a piece of furniture. The lid came off and served as one speaker, the other was in the phonograph itself. It was cool. A little while after, I got a special record from Columbia that included samples of a bunch of Columbia stereo recordings and a set of noises that you could use to balance your speakers — there was a booklet explaining how to do this. So I balanced my speakers, cranked up the volume, and listened to the sampled music which was pretty humdrum until, suddenly, I was assaulted with a barrage of orchestral music, intensely rhythmic, heavy on percussion. I listened to the piece again. And again. Up to this point in my life, Little Richard had made the most exciting music I had heard but now I was listening to an excerpt from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by Leonard Bernstein conducting the N.Y. Philharmonic and it blew everything else I had ever listened to out of the water. Years after, I still find it exciting music, but that’s partly because now I know the story behind it.
In the early 20th Century, ballet had fallen into disuse in Europe, except in Russia, where a few composers and a state-supported performance system kept turning out interesting work. But a new group of composers had come on the scene after Tchaikovsky — Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakoff, and his pupil, Stravinsky. These composers were very self-consciously Russian and they played up an aspect of Russia stereotyped by outsiders that is now called Orientalism.
Serge Diaghilev, showman and impresario, bundled together a number of Russian dancers, musicians, and artists and took them to Paris as the Ballets Russes in 1909. The dancers included Vaslav Nijinsky and, for a time, Anna Pavlova. The chief designer was Leon Bakst, who often worked with local artists, including Picasso. The Ballets Russes were a huge hit but Diaghilev soon became faced with the problem of topping his last performance.
Igor Stravinsky composed The Firebird and Petrushka for the Ballets Russes but, in 1912, began work on a very new, very iconoclastic piece about the birth of music itself. Stravinsky’s vision was informed by a Ballets Russes designer, Nicolai Roerich, a mystic artist who was inspired by the findings of archaeologists that were very recent. Roerich had worked out a notion of prehistoric ritual that he explained to Stravinsky.
The idea was that, in the Spring, the Earth had to be served so that it would allow the generation of new life; the service was one of human sacrifice. Stravinsky was taken with this notion and began to compose the score for a ballet that would feature dancers conducting the ritual that would culminate in the sacrifice of the Chosen One, a girl who would — this being ballet — dance herself to death.
Meanwhile, in Paris, Diaghilev was in a sexual relationship with Nijinsky, but the affair seemed to be reaching a crisis point — possibly because Nijinsky was tired of being Diaghilev’s possession, possibly because of Diaghilev’s desire for variety. This was not a long-term relationship.
Nijinsky was the star of the Ballets Russes, the first male dancer to achieve the kind of fame later accorded Nureyev and Baryshnikov. He had begun to choreograph some of the Ballets Russes numbers, not always successfully. Meanwhile, he performed in costumes that were either over-the-top Oriental or hardly there at all. His Afternoon of A Faun shocked some people with its sexuality — but, then, the Parisian taste-making class wanted to be shocked and Diaghilev wanted them to buy tickets, so Nijinsky kept pushing at the boundaries of acceptability.
Things were mounting toward a crisis point. Nijinsky’s version of a new work by Debussy, Jeux, received a few catcalls and boos at its premiere, but there was no great scandal yet, just the sense of one waiting to happen.
When Stravinsky first played some of the Rite for Diaghilev he chose a part where the same chord is pounded over and over. According to Stravinsky’s recollection (and, let it be said now, Stravinsky is a most unreliable rememberer), Diaghilev asked, “When does it end?” He was trying to be polite, Stravinsky said later, but he snapped a reply, “When it’s over!” According to Stravinsky, the chastened Diaghilev sat quietly through the repetition of the piece.
It is difficult to imagine Diaghilev being chastened by anything and, soon as he could, he began talking up the new work that the Ballets Russes was going to perform: composed by Stravinsky, conducted by Pierre Monteux, choreographed by Nijinsky, set and costume designs by Nicolai Roerich. So it was that, May 29, 1913, The Rite of Spring was first performed at Gabriel Astruc’s brand-new Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
There are many eye-witness accounts of what happened that evening and not one of them can be trusted. It is not simply that they contradict each other, it’s that the witnesses contradict themselves in the telling and re-telling of the tale. Many more people claim to have been there than the theatre could hold — was Picasso there? Probably not. Were Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas? Or did they, perhaps, see a later performance? No one now can say: this was a pre-video event.
According to some accounts, there was a disturbance when the first notes of the piece played in the darkened theatre — a bassoon, playing in its upper register. (“Wouldn’t a saxophone be better, Mr. Stravinsky?” “I know the difference between a saxophone and a bassoon, and I want a bassoon!”) Other accounts say that the uproar began when the curtain rose on the dancers, clad in flannel dresses with long pigtails. The dancing was pigeon-toed stamping to the insistent rhythms of the orchestra. And those rhythms played off one another and against each other in groupings of notes that did not harmonize. There was no melody.
The women dancers struck poses discovered by Roerich’s archaeological research. When they cocked their heads against their hands, someone yelled, “Get a dentist!” and someone else yelled back, “Get two dentists!”
So it went. The cacophony from the audience grew and grew. Conductor Pierre Monteux had been told, “Keep on, no matter what!” And he did. When the dancers could not hear the music over the audience noise, Nijinsky stood on a chair in the wings shouting out the count in Russian. Stravinsky abandoned his seat and said something to the people around him, perhaps “Go to Hell!”. He remembered it in different ways. He went backstage where he may have held Nijinsky’s coattails as the choreographer leaned out over the stage shouting his directions. Someone, perhaps Diaghilev, perhaps Astruc, the theatre owner, flicked the houselights on, then off, several times to try to quiet things down. Some say that objects were hurled at the dancers, at the orchestra, at spectators. Others say that fistfights broke out. Some accounts have mass arrests of forty or more people, though this does not show up in the official police records. In other words, as my great aunt used to say, “A good time was had by all.”
Afterwards, Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and Jean Cocteau went out on the town. They wound up in the Bois de Boulogne, in the early hours, with Diaghilev weeping and reciting Pushkin at the top of his lungs. Or so Cocteau said. Stravinsky denied the story. He claimed that he, Diaghilev, and Nijinsky went to a restaurant where Diaghilev claimed that the evening was “exactly what he wanted”. There are a lot of stories about the events of that evening that I doubt. Did Saint-Saens really say, when he heard the opening notes, “If that’s a bassoon, then I’m a baboon.” I suppose he spoke in French, “basson” and “babouine” just don’t have that rhyme that the story requires. But I could be wrong. Stravinsky says that neither Saint-Saens nor Cocteau attended the premiere, but he could be misremembering.
Diaghilev may have been the genius behind the great scandal. He gave away tickets to young modernists, those who disdained the upper classes (who paid double price for their tickets) and, some say, he hired certain provocateurs to create a riot. Whether or not that is true, he was certainly pleased with the night’s events which guaranteed sellouts of the next five French performances and the four English ones that followed. This was not enough to make the event solvent — there were fifty or so dancers, ninety-nine or a hundred orchestra members (there was scarcely enough room to squeeze them into the pit) — and Astruc was paying double fee to the Ballets Russes. He went bankrupt. Ah well, c’est dommage!
The Ballets Russes now embarked on a voyage to South America to astonish the citizenry there — all except Diaghilev who claimed he was afraid of ocean voyages, though others say that he wanted an Italian vacation to check out the pretty boys. Anyway, on the trans-Atlantic voyage, Nijinsky proposed marriage to Romola de Pulzsky, a Hungarian woman who had been stalking him for more than a year. They did not share a language, so an intermediary was called in to translate. Romola, who had been warned by Marie Rambert, Nijinsky’s under-choreographer, that the man was gay, went ahead with the marriage. It was some time before it was consummated, but when that event was accomplished, Romola became pregnant. Back in Europe, Diaghilev was furious and fired Nijinsky from the Ballets Russes.
Nijinsky tried working with his own company, headed by himself, his sister, and her husband — the last two very accomplished dancers. But Nijinsky had no head for business or organization and things were not working out when, in August, 1914, the First World War put an end to all that. Nijinsky was in Vienna at the time and, as a Russian citizen, he was incarcerated as an enemy alien. But what goes around, comes around, and Diaghilev managed to spring him free. For a couple of years they tried to work together, but somehow the world was not so interested in ballet at that particular moment.
In 1919, in Switzerland, Nijinsky gave his last performance to a group of upper-crust types who attended him at his hotel. Nijinsky sat for a half hour staring unblinking into the eyes of his audience who dared not respond. Then he unrolled two great strips of cloth, overlaid them in a cross, and said, “Now I will dance you the war…. The war which you did not prevent.” He danced. They left. That morning, Nijinsky had begun a journal full of odd writings and his own drawings. The drawings are mainly of eyes, single staring eyes. Some have been gone over and over again so that the paper has worn away under his pen strokes. Over the next two years, his behavior became more and more erratic — he tried to drive his carriage into others, for instance, and he pushed or threw Romola down a flight of stairs. Finally, in 1919, he was committed to an asylum, diagnosed with dementia praecox, or as his doctor, Eugen Bleuler, later termed it, schizophrenia.
The war was not kind to anyone and the Russian Revolution wrecked any hopes that members of the Ballets Russes might have of going home: they were now bourgeois entertainment and not to be tolerated. Still, ballet lived on in Russia and, eventually, Stravinsky’s music was rehabilitated by Khruschev.
Diaghilev died from diabetic complications in Italy in 1929 and was buried on the island of San Michele near Venice. Nicolas Roerich continued to sail on into the mystic and settled in India where he died in 1947. The Roerich Pact of 1935 resulted from his work in trying to protect the world’s cultural heritage.In 1920, The Rite of Spring was re-choreographed by Diaghilev’s new lover, Leonid Massine, and performed several times. In 1930, it came to America. The Pittsburgh performance was preceded by a work by Schoenberg, who requires a whole ‘nother level of appreciation. The lead dancer in the US performance was Martha Graham.
Stravinsky emigrated to the US in 1940. He drifted to Hollywood where he made contact with the vast group of European refugees already there. Walt Disney, under the influence of Leopold Stokowski, was trying to put together a film of animated classical music. He had a notion of a prehistoric earth, dinosaurs battling, volcanoes raging, that sort of thing, but he could not find the proper music. Someone suggested The Rite of Spring. Disney got into it. He and Stravinsky talked for a while — both parties have given very different renditions of the discussion — and Stravinsky’s work got the nod.
Later, Stravinsky said that Disney had threatened him (or implied the threat) that he could do what he wanted since The Rite of Spring was not protected any longer by copyright, the Bolsheviks having given up all that bourgeois claptrap. So, take it or leave it. Stravinsky took it — the amount of cash involved differs from one account to another. Those present at the actual events say that Stravinsky was pleased, but who knows.
Fantasia did not do well at the box office and Disney decided never to go highbrow again. Years later, when Disney re-issued the film they ran into a problem: an outfit named Boosey & Hawkes had obtained the copyright to The Rite of Spring in 1947. In 1993 when Fantasia was scheduled for release as a video, Boosey sued, saying that Disney had only purchased theatrical rights from Stravinsky, not video rights. Disney settled for $3 Million. Of course, this is amusing to anyone who knows about the history of copyright and the manner in which Disney has extended it. For a little while, the Rite was in public domain but in 2012, a century after it was written, the piece went back under copyright. Right now, under the current rules, The Rite of Spring will not be copyright free until 2041.
In 1939, Nijinsky had improved somewhat, possibly as a result of insulin shock treatment (which, to me, sounds so barbaric that I can’t credit it), and went home, or to Romola’s home, in Hungary. He almost never spoke and hardly related to anyone — his daughter recollected him taking a bouquet that she offered him and clutching it silently to his bosom. In 1945, he heard Russian soldiers playing folk music near his house and went out to them and began to dance for the first time in a quarter-century. He died in 1950 in London.Stravinsky kept on in the US. I recall seeing his Noah and the Flood on television in the ’60s. All that I remember was the depiction of the Heavenly Host, angels eternally singing to God, who were (I thought) made up to look like mechanistic puppets. He died in 1971 and, like Diaghilev, was buried on San Michele.
Marie Rambert was fired from the Ballets Russes at the same time as Nijinsky. Diaghilev suspected her of loving Nijinsky — which, perhaps, she did. She went on to become a major force in ballet, particularly in England. She died in 1982.
In 1979, Rambert assisted Millicent Hodson in an attempt to restore Nijinsky’s choreography for The Rite of Spring. After close examination of Nijinsky’s notes and other documentation, Hodson was able to reconstruct the original ballet, which the Joffrey Ballet performed in 1987. You can see a version here.
Many orchestral performances of The Rite can be accessed on line. There is a version by Pierre Monteux (who scoffed at the piece whenever anyone asked about it), Pierre Boulez, Stravinsky himself, and several versions by Leonard Bernstein as well as many national orchestras. There are also: an electronic version, an 8-bit version, several jazz versions, a couple by high school marching bands, mashups, and versions by groups such as Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. There are also several performances of the work for four hands and two pianos, though the original performance by Stravinsky and Debussy of that arrangement was not recorded, so far as I know.
A very good documentary on the music and listening to it is from Michael Tilson-Thomas’ Keeping Score. There are also videos available on the bassoon part (and how to play it), master classes in conducting the piece, and so on.I am reliably told on the internet (so it must be true) that more than two hundred ballet versions have been staged. Boosey & Hawkes say that they have authorized a hundred and fifty. Some follow, as best they know how, the original; some have very odd costumes; some have no costumes, completely or partially nude; some have a young man as the sacrificial victim; one Russian version has the victim’s lover exacting revenge on the tribal elders after the fact, an atheistic Communist political corrective; there is a native American version, an Australian aboriginal version, a Punk version (what?); a Japanese butoh version; and one where there are no dancers at all, just clouds of bone dust floating over the stage. Just do a search for “Rite of Spring” on YouTube and you will find versions to both thrill and appall you.
All of this would make Diaghilev smile, especially if he could get a cut of the box office. Nijinsky would be horrified; he believed in his version. Stravinsky, who became an American citizen in 1945 and lived in the States until his death, would just shrug it off, or make up a story about it all.
The BBC’s Riot at the Rite is a movie that retells the story of May 29. It has a somewhat hetero Nijinsky who sacrifices himself to Art, just as the Rite‘s dancer sacrifices herself to the Earth. There are other movies about the Rite and Nijinsky and even a play about Stravinsky and Disney.
Still, after all these years, The Rite of Spring is powerful music. Leonard Bernstein said that it was the most important orchestral work of the 20th Century. Stravinsky was one of the artists who created Modernism , the 2oth Century’s new take on Art. After World War I, younger artists imbued their work with a cynical, disillusioned edge, but for a long while, it was still the same Modernist patch being plowed. Now, of course, we are all Post-Modern and this stuff doesn’t mean so much: we can be all ironic about it. But, I want to say, The Rite of Spring still hammers my consciousness the same way that it did a half-century ago.