By the time Stravinsky mounted Rite of Spring in 1913, history had already seen many premieres of operas and other theatrical works where audiences loudly disliked what they saw. In some cases, such as the premiere of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, the noise came from a paid claque. In Rossini’s case, he dared to use the same story as an already successful opera by Giovanni Paisiello, who sent his friends to shout it down. But what happened to Rite of Spring (original title Sacre du Printemps) topped anything that had happened before.
Stravinsky’s earlier ballets for the same company, Firebird and Petroushka, had been successful, even though the music was quite different than what French audiences were accustomed to hearing, as was the choreography of the Russian dancer Vaslev Nijinsky. In Rite of Spring, both men pushed the envelope still further. Nijinsky’s wife anticipated that the new ballet would make the audience fidget.
Instead, within moments after the music started, they began to murmur. Then some of them started making cat-calls and shouting. That angered other audience members who wanted to hear the music. Their attempts to stop the shouting simply added to the noise. The orchestra, conducted by Pierre Monteux, continued to play even though no one could hear them at all. He looked to the box of impresario Serge Diaghilev for instructions, and Diaghilev signaled him to keep going.
The theater manager ordered the house lights turned on. Instead of stopping the noise, it only made audience members visible enough to each other that they could begin to fight with each other. When one lady slapped the face of a man nearby, he and her escort exchanged cards and fought a duel the next day. Eventually the police arrived and emptied the theater, except for the performers. The orchestra had never stopped playing and finished performing the ballet to the quiet of an empty room.
Monteux later recalled that the company presented five performances in all in the same theater, all with the same kind of reaction. Each time, he concentrated on keeping the orchestra together and did not look up to see the ballet itself. After a couple of performances in London, where audiences sat quietly and left, it seemed that Rite of Spring had simply failed. Usually in case of such failure, that is the end of the story.
But as friends described the ballet to Monteux, he concluded that the choreography upset the Parisian audiences at least as much as the music. Monteux persuaded Stravinsky to allow a concert performance of Rite of Spring in Paris. With nearly every important musician in town attending a sold-out concert hall, some of the more conservative members of the audience still hated the music, but they simply walked out. Others left at the end of the concert with renewed appreciation for Stravinsky’s music in general and Rite of Spring in particular.
By 1940, Rite of Spring had become so much accepted in concert halls that Walt Disney had no qualms about including it in an animated feature with a sound track entirely comprising classical music. Nowadays, as regular readers of Musicology for Everyone may recall, conducting Rite of Spring has literally become child’s play, at least to one five-year-old!
Sources: The Book of Musical Anecdotes by Norman Lebrecht (Free Press, 1985), numbers 721, 722; pp. 306-07.
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