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10.7: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

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    72665
  • It is hard to understate the impact of Rite of Spring on the music that came afterward. The jarring rhythms and the use of traditional instruments in non-traditional ways paved the way for the experiments of later composers. This brief article at the website for the PBS program “Keeping Score” gives a very accessible account of the historical context of the first performance. More importantly, you can watch the entire Rite of Spring episode for free on the page. While you can get all the information you need for our course from the article, I encourage you to watch the program either now or in the future. You’ll learn a great deal more about the music of the day, and you’ll see both the orchestral musicians and the ballet dancers in action. The work was, after all, originally written to be performed in combination with the dance.

    Here is some material to supplement the “Keeping Score” website. It provides a scene by scene breakdown of the music we listen to. The music is telling, and the dancers are depicting a story. It is important that you know the specifics of that story. You should also remember that even though Rite of Spring consists of two parts, and we only have the first part on our playlist.

    Introduction

    Figure 1. Part of Nicholas Roerich's designs for Diaghilev's 1913 production of Le Sacre du printemps
    Figure 1. Part of Nicholas Roerich’s designs for Diaghilev’s 1913 production of Le Sacre du printemps

    The Rite of Spring (French: Le Sacre du printemps, Russian: «Весна священная»,Vesna svyashchennaya) is a ballet and orchestral concert work by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. It was written for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company; the original choreography was by Vaslav Nijinsky, with stage designs and costumes by Nicholas Roerich. When first performed, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913, the avant-garde nature of the music and choreography caused a sensation and a near-riot in the audience. Although designed as a work for the stage, with specific passages accompanying characters and action, the music achieved equal if not greater recognition as a concert piece, and is widely considered to be one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century.

    Stravinsky was a young, virtually unknown composer when Diaghilev recruited him to create works for the Ballets Russes. The Rite was the third such project, after the acclaimed Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911). The concept behind The Rite of Spring, developed by Roerich from Stravinsky’s outline idea, is suggested by its subtitle, “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”; in the scenario, after various primitive rituals celebrating the advent of spring, a young girl is chosen as a sacrificial victim and dances herself to death. After a mixed critical reception for its original run and a short London tour, the ballet was not performed again until the 1920s, when a version choreographed by Léonide Massine replaced Nijinsky’s original. Massine’s was the forerunner of many innovative productions directed by the world’s leading ballet-masters, which gained the work worldwide acceptance. In the 1980s, Nijinsky’s original choreography, long believed lost, was reconstructed by the Joffrey Ballet in Los Angeles.

    Stravinsky’s score contains many novel features for its time, including experiments in tonality, metre, rhythm, stress and dissonance. Analysts have noted in the score a significant grounding in Russian folk music, a relationship Stravinsky tended to deny. The music has influenced many of the 20th-century’s leading composers, and is one of the most recorded works in the classical repertoire.

    Synopsis and Structure

    In a note to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky in February 1914, Stravinsky described The Rite of Spring as “a musical-choreographic work, [representing] pagan Russia . . . unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring”. In his analysis of The Rite, Pieter van den Toorn writes that the work lacks a specific plot or narrative, and should be considered as a succession of choreographed episodes.

    The French titles are given in the form given in the four-part piano score published in 1913. There have been numerous variants of the English translations; those shown are from the 1967 edition of the score.

    Episode English translation Synopsis
    Part I: L’Adoration de la Terre (Adoration of the Earth)
    Introduction Introduction Before the curtain rises, an orchestral introduction resembles, according to Stravinsky, “a swarm of spring pipes [dudki]”
    Les Augures printaniers Augurs of Spring The celebration of spring begins in the hills. An old woman enters and begins to foretell the future.
    Jeu du rapt Ritual of Abduction Young girls arrive from the river, in single file. They begin the “Dance of the Abduction.”
    Rondes printanières Spring Rounds The young girls dance the Khorovod, the “Spring Rounds.”
    Jeux des cités rivales Ritual of the Rival Tribes The people divide into two groups in opposition to each other, and begin the “Ritual of the Rival Tribes.”
    Cortège du sage: Le Sage Procession of the Sage: The Sage A holy procession leads to the entry of the wise elders, headed by the Sage who brings the games to a pause and blesses the earth.
    Danse de la terre Dance of the Earth The people break into a passionate dance, sanctifying and becoming one with the earth.
    Part II: Le Sacrifice (The Sacrifice)
    Introduction Introduction
    Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes Mystic Circles of the Young Girls The young girls engage in mysterious games, walking in circles.
    Glorification de l’élue Glorification of the Chosen One One of the young girls is selected by fate, being twice caught in the perpetual circle, and is honoured as the “Chosen One” with a martial dance.
    Evocation des ancêtres Evocation of the Ancestors In a brief dance, the young girls invoke the ancestors.
    Action rituelle des ancêtres Ritual Action of the Ancestors The Chosen One is entrusted to the care of the old wise men.
    Danse sacrale (L’Élue) Sacrificial Dance The Chosen One dances to death in the presence of the old men, in the great “Sacrificial Dance.”

    Premiere

    Figure 1. The New York Times reported the sensational Rite premiere, nine days after the event.
    Figure 2. The New York Times reported the sensational Rite premiere, nine days after the event.

    Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was a new structure, which had opened on 2 April 1913 with a programme celebrating the works of many of the leading composers of the day. The theatre’s manager, Gabriel Astruc, was determined to house the 1913 Ballets Russes season, and paid Diaghilev the large sum of 25,000 francs per performance, double what he had paid the previous year. Ticket sales for the evening, ticket prices being doubled for a premiere, amounted to 35,000 francs. The programme for 29 May 1913 also included Les Sylphides, Weber’s Le Spectre de la Rose and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.

    At the time, a Parisian ballet audience typically consisted of two diverse groups: the wealthy and fashionable set, who would be expecting to see a traditional performance with beautiful music, and a “Bohemian” group who, the poet-philosopher Jean Cocteau asserted, would “acclaim, right or wrong, anything that is new because of their hatred of the boxes.” Final rehearsals were held on the day before the premiere, in the presence of members of the press and assorted invited guests. According to Stravinsky all went peacefully. However, the critic of L’Écho de Paris, Adolphe Boschot, foresaw possible trouble; he wondered how the public would receive the work, and suggested that they might react badly if they thought they were being mocked.

    On the evening of the 29 May the theatre was packed: Gustav Linor reported, “Never . . . has the hall been so full, or so resplendent; the stairways and the corridors were crowded with spectators eager to see and to hear.” The evening began with Les Sylphides, in which Nijinsky and Karsavina danced the main roles. The Rite followed. Some eyewitnesses and commentators said that the disturbances in the audience began during the Introduction, and grew into a crescendo when the curtain rose on the stamping dancers in “Augurs of Spring.” But music historian Richard Taruskin asserts, “it was not Stravinsky’s music that did the shocking. It was the ugly earthbound lurching and stomping devised by Vaslav Nijinsky.” Marie Rambert, who was working as an assistant to Nijinsky, recalled later that it was soon impossible to hear the music on the stage. In his autobiography, Stravinsky writes that the derisive laughter that greeted the first bars of the Introduction disgusted him, and that he left the auditorium to watch the rest of the performance from the stage wings. The demonstrations, he says, grew into “a terrific uproar” which, along with the on-stage noises, drowned out the voice of Nijinsky who was shouting the step numbers to the dancers. The journalist and photographer Carl Van Vechten recorded that the person behind him got carried away with excitement, and “began to beat rhythmically on top of my head,” though Van Vechten failed to notice this at first, his own emotion being so great.

    Figure 2. Dancers in Nicholas Roerich's original costumes. From left, Julitska, Marie Rambert, Jejerska, Boni, Boniecka, Faithful
    Figure 3. Dancers in Nicholas Roerich’s original costumes. From left, Julitska, Marie Rambert, Jejerska, Boni, Boniecka, Faithful

    Monteux believed that the trouble began when the two factions in the audience began attacking each other, but their mutual anger was soon diverted towards the orchestra: “Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on”. Around forty of the worst offenders were ejected—possibly with the intervention of the police, although this is uncorroborated. Through all the disturbances the performance continued without interruption. Things grew noticeably quieter during Part II, and by some accounts Maria Piltz’s rendering of the final “Sacrificial Dance” was watched in reasonable silence. At the end there were several curtain calls for the dancers, for Monteux and the orchestra, and for Stravinsky and Nijinsky before the evening’s programme continued.

    Among the more hostile press reviews was that of Le Figaro‍ ’​s critic, Henri Quittard, who called the work “a laborious and puerile barbarity” and added “We are sorry to see an artist such as M. Stravinsky involve himself in this disconcerting adventure.” On the other hand Gustav Linor, writing in the leading theatrical magazine Comoedia, thought the performance was superb, especially that of Maria Piltz; the disturbances, while deplorable, were merely “a rowdy debate” between two ill-mannered factions. Emile Raudin, of Les Marges, who had barely heard the music, wrote: “Couldn’t we ask M. Astruc . . . to set aside one performance for well-intentioned spectators? . . . We could at least propose to evict the female element.” The composer Alfredo Casella thought that the demonstrations were aimed at Nijinsky’s choreography rather than at the music, a view shared by the critic Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, who wrote: “The idea was excellent, but was not successfully carried out.” Calvocoressi failed to observe any direct hostility to the composer—unlike, he said, the premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902. Of later reports that the veteran composer Camille Saint-Saëns had stormed out of the premiere, Stravinsky observed that this was impossible; Saint-Saëns did not attend. Stravinsky also rejected Cocteau’s story that, after the performance, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Diaghilev and Cocteau himself took a cab to the Bois de Boulogne where a tearful Diaghilev recited poems by Pushkin. Stravinsky merely recalled a celebratory dinner with Diaghilev and Nijinsky, at which the impresario expressed his entire satisfaction with the outcome. To Maximilien Steinberg, a former fellow-pupil under Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky wrote that Nijinsky’s choreography had been “incomparable: with the exception of a few places, everything was as I wanted it.”

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