MADNESS and MAESTROS: Stravinsky's Riot in Paris

Igor Stravinsky.
Spring, early 20th century France.

Fresh into the Ballets Russes 1913 season at Paris’ lush Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, a riot was about to break out - one of such unbridled frenzy and ubiquitous debauchery it would reverberate through the streets of the City of Light, leaving in it’s wake a tale - part recounted, part myth - that would be re-told and re-embellished amongst Europe’s beaux mondes to this very day.

The antagonist of this legendary saga was one Igor Stravinsky, an eclectic and revolutionary early-to-late twentieth century composer, and his esteemed and equally pioneering dancer and choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky. Stravinsky would answer to the Ballet Russes company owner and impresario Serge Diaghilev, a man of great connections and sometimes controversial methods.

Taking center stage was the May 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre Du Printemps”, (The Rite of Spring) a ground breaking ballet and orchestral depiction of Pagan Russia, as portrayed though ritualistic and arcane sacrifices.

Certainly, for the audience of the Champs-Élysées that unseasonably hot twenty-ninth evening in May, ‘ballet’, in it’s traditional sense, was anything but what was being showcased before their ever-judgmental eyes. This was something both raw and savage in it’s approach - quite far removed from the graceful splendor of ballets such as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake or the delicate nuances of orchestral ebbs and flows found in the mélodies of fellow Parisian favorites Claude Debussy and Joseph Maurice Ravel.

In a two-part illustration of ritualistic practices said to have been reflective of Pagan Russia, a select group of village elders, Virgins and one Wise Sage participate in a series of invocations and offerings in the form of dance and ‘games’ in honor of the augurs of Spring.

In the beginning of the first act, a village elder invokes her clairvoyant spirit and begins to foretell the future. This is followed by a set of two different dances portrayed by young girls, each dance serving their own purpose in the regaling of contemporary and ancestral offerings and sacrifice: the Dance of the Abduction and The Spring Rounds, respectively.

We then see the group separate into two tribes to begin the ‘Ritual of the Rival Tribes', followed by a holy procession of Wise Elders, amongst them a Sage, who bends down to kiss the earth, blessing it and giving hope for a fruitful Spring. This is immediately followed by a celebratory dance of cohesion between the villagers and Mother Earth.

Virginal Young Girls dance in a circle.
In the second act, things move at a more feverish and furious pace as the Virginal young girls play a game not unlike the modern ‘musical chairs’ in which a circular gathering of the unspoiled take turns inserting themselves one in front of the other, linking and un-linking themselves from the continual round. It is at this point the sacrificial lamb is chosen when one of the Virgins twice loses her footing and falls to the ground, ultimately disrupting the circular chain. In a moment of sheer terror matched by a sense of manifest destiny, the young virgin, now known as “The Chosen One” is thrust into the chain’s core to marinate on her fate as she is made wed through the dancing of her peers to the Earth and it’s Universal Life Force. Ancestors are invoked, and amongst a group of ‘Old Wise Men’, entrusted in her care, The Chosen One begins a frenzied and hyperactive period of dance without refrain, ultimately resulting in her death by exhaustion, thus completing the sacrifice.

The story of the ritual sounds straight forward enough, if a bit impudent in nature. What made this ballet’s reception so controversial was it’s use of avant-garde dance, costume and orchestral sounds, all of which were perceived to be both ‘jarring’ and 'barbaric.'

Dressed in gaudy flannel of brown and white whose shapes reflected that of  burlap sacks, the dancers of Le Sacre du Printemps had to forget everything they knew about their fine craft and technique as they leaped repeatedly into the air, coming down hard onto the stage (one of the original “Chosen Ones” described the experience as especially painful, as they were demanded by choreographer Nijinsky to land forcibly - so much so that their internal organs would “shake” on impact). They would not move with the graceful agility of performances past, but instead with ‘knocked knees’ and with toes 'pointed inward'. It was unlike anything any dancer had ever experienced, and the troupe was less than thrilled with having to perform it.

Of the origins of The Rite, Stravinsky regales "One day,when I was
finishing the last pages of L'Oiseau de Feu in St Petersburg, I had a
fleeting vision - I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage
elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death.
They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of Spring. Such was the
theme of the Sacre du Printemps"
The music itself was highly undignified to twentieth century Parisian ears. The ballet begins with a solo bassoon belting out a peculiar semi-rhythmic melody in a register so high, members of the audience would reveal an aura of mystery surrounding the actual instrument employed for the seminal work:

A French critic of the contemporary periodical “Gil Blas” was said to have recorded a conversation amongst members of the audience at the premiere of the Rite in 1913: "What instrument produces these sounds?' I say, 'It's an oboe.' My right-hand neighbour, who is a great composer, insists that it is a muted trumpet. My left-hand neighbour, who is no less of a musical scholar, declares, 'I should have thought it was a clarinet.' In the interval we ask the conductor himself, and we are told that it was a bassoon that gave us such heart-searchings."

The sound that followed the now infamous prelude was one of atonal and both jarring and startling harmonic tensions framed by unpredictable rhythms that fluctuated between stillness and agitated. Stravinsky's use of strange dissonances had not caused so much unrest amongst bluebloods since the secular works of then-forgotten composer and murderer Carlo Gesualdo, some three centuries earlier.

So shocking was this display of perceived crude and provocative performance, a full blown riot was said to have ensued - one that could out-rival any fracas commonly seen at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Vegetables and other various objects were thrown, fists were exchanged along with vulgarities and threats amongst members of the audience, one of which would turn into a full blown ‘duel’ the following morning..this was in addition to the booing, heckling and hissing of the audience directed at the performers on stage and indeed the composer Stravinsky himself.

Igor Stravinsky had but one demand of the dancers that night: don’t stop performing..no matter what happens. The ballet's troupe took this to heart, and didn’t miss a leap or an unceremonious landing even as the catcalling reached it’s climactic apex, rendering the orchestra nearly inaudible.

A facsimile Copy of Le Sacre du Printemps by Igor Stravinsky.
The dancers of the Rite weren’t the only victims of jeering and projectiles: one member of the Orchestra recalls that fateful night at the Champs-Des-Élysées: "Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on".

It is said that some forty of the worst offenders were booted from the Theatre after police were allegedly called to try to temper the disquiet and the violent. Diaghilev attempted his own form of distraction: turning the house lights on and off. It just made the crowd more enraged.

A portrait of Igor Stravinsky
by Pablo Picasso.
Picasso was one of a number
of famous affiliates of the Fine
Arts in attendance at the May
1913 premiere of the Rite.
In the audience that night were the wealthy and the wealthier - the upper crust of Parisian art society, among them many patrons of note: writers Marcel Proust and Gertrude Stein, Cubist painter Pablo Picasso, and composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy to name a few (later productions would see Romantic Composer Giacomo Puccini in attendance). There is some suggestion that there existed some sort of ‘class warfare’ between the wealthy and nobility in attendance, with one twentieth century writer commenting “The smart audience in tails and tulle, diamonds and ospreys, was interspersed with the suits and bandeaux of the aesthetic crowd. The latter would applaud novelty simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes… Innumerable shades of snobbery, super-snobbery and inverted snobbery were represented.” - Jean Cocteau. This thesis is one that would continue to ring true through posterity. The primitive displays of humanity as depicted in Le Sacre du Printemps was considered especially savage amongst the upper crust of the Paris art world. The perpetrators of such un-evolved displays of gluttony as seen in the pagan Russia of Stravinsky, had no place in modern society - even enacted on stage.

By it’s conclusion that humid spring evening, bizarrely, the audience was said to have been on it’s feet in ovation. Could this be due to the ballets’ finale, La Danse Sacrale, where The Chosen One has an almost five minute long masochistically belabored dance solo or simply because their perceived torture at having to sit though such a travesty of sight and sound was finally over? It is possible it was the former, as it would be difficult, even under the worst of circumstances, to imagine anyone not being moved by the pitiful and pathetic forfeiture of life as portrayed though Nijinsky’s powerful choreography in this particular scene. It is more likely, however, given the contextual history and documents about the staging that survive that it was the latter.

Diaghilev and Stravinsky. The composer of The Rite would find
himself “greatly offended” by Diaghilev when he asked of Igor
at an early rehearsal, "Will it last a very long time this way?" to
which Stravinsky replied: "To the end, my dear."
Le Sacre du Printemps would experience a mixed but largely critical reception during its original run, and a short London tour until advent of the First World War in August of 1914. Vaslav Nijinsky would soon retire from stage and succumb to a paralyzing case of schizophrenia, while Diaghilev sought, unsuccessfully, to revive the ballet in it's original form in 1920. By then, it seemed the original choreography that had made the rite so infamous was now lost. Much has been made about Diaghilev’s motive to bring the Rite back to the stage to begin with. It is commonly believed that, upon being startled
at the symphonic output of the piece during rehearsals, Diaghilev knowingly funded the unusual ballet (at a whopping 25, 000 francs a performance) under the assumption that it’s peculiarity would encite much “discussion” and “debate” thereby securing him a substantial fiscal return.

Whatever the motive behind pushing for the production of the epic work, Diaghilev’s assumption turned out to be correct. Le Sacre du Printemps has gone through many periods of critical fluctuation, by both noted and common patrons of the arts, with composers by the likes of Giacomo Puccini commenting on a later performance: "the work of a madman...sheer cacophony.. The public hissed, laughed – and applauded...", and Maurice Ravel, who, upon reading the Rite’s manuscript prior to production, predicted, in a letter to a friend, that the premier performance of the ballet would "be as important as the 1902 premiere of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande; and with contemporary critics panning the work: "a laborious and puerile barbarity...", and “pounding with the rhythm of engines, whirls and spirals like screws and fly-wheels, grinds and shrieks like laboring metal."

The Rite would see a revival in c. 1920, however this time, under new choreographer Léonide Massine, who would replace Nijinsky’s notoriously agitated routine with his own. It would be through this structural change and through the respected Massine name that Le Sacre du Printemps would gain universal appeal.

Original sketching of the ground breaking
dances of Le Sacre du Printemps.
The original choreography of Nijinsky, long believed to have been lost, was pieced together by the contemporary accounts and sketches (drawn by the premiere’s audience members) that survived and was re-set to the first authentic staging of the work in almost seventy years by the Joffrey Ballet in Los Angeles, California in late September of 1987.

Patrons of the arts today view the Rite as legendary, innovative, and ahead of it’s time. It’s influence can be seen and heard in modern dance, jazz, and even in film work, with soundtracks for major motion features drawing heavily on the Rite’s irregular rhythms, contrasting tonalities and jarring jumps and startles within the music itself, rivaling the excessive sampling of Gustav Holst’s ever popular Jupiter Symphony from his epic Planets Series. Modern composer and giant of the film score industry Philip Glass summed up Stravinsky’s mammoth magnetism in the late 20th century when he described the work and it’s author thusly: "theater composer par excellence."



Le Sacre du Printemps | The Rite of Spring (Full Ballet:)
 

The Joffrey Ballet reconstructs the original Choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky in their
1987 revival of
Le Sacre du Printemps. The shocking and deeply moving 'Danse Sacrale' begins shortly after the 24th 
minute mark (at 24:25).

Underscoring the true horror of "La Danse Sacrale" as performed by The Chosen One in the last act of Le Sacre du Printemps, dancer Marie-Claude Pietragalla contrasts the 'primitive barbarism' significant of the rituals of the Rite itself with the benevolent spirit in which the pagan villagers proffer their Sacrifice to their deity: the God of Spring.

I am including here the 'Sacred Dance' below in excerpted form, in addition to the video above, as it seems to be the only available footage of Pietragalla in this role available online (from what I can tell from the video in terms of focus and lighting, it is highly probable this excerpt of Le Sacre du Printemps is taken from rehearsal footage). I have watched Marie-Claude's rendition (in this video) countless times and it never fails to move me...to my taste, there is no greater interpretation of "La Danse Sacrale", or indeed, of the role of "The Chosen One" than Pietragalla's:


Marie-Claude Pietragalla performs 'La Danse Sacrale' in the final scene of Igor Stravinsky's 'Le
Sacre du Printemps
.' Pietragalla appears in the role of 'The Chosen
One'.



Footnotes:
READ MORE OF MY POSTS ON IGOR STRAVINSKY & VASLAV NIJINSKY in the Rite archives here.

-Rose.


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