Listen & Do #1: Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”

Context is everything. Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps is probably one of the most famous pieces of the 20th Century. It was first performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on 29 May 1913 (100 years ago this month) and caused a near riot in the hall. Yes the music was new and shocking. And the choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky for Sergei Diaghilev‘s  Ballets Russes company was – to be kind – provocative. But the melee that broke out when the performance began was as much about the audience as it was the music or dance.

There is general agreement among eyewitnesses and commentators 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”. 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 autobiographical account, 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 (“I have never again been that angry”)

The audience was comprised of two factions – a rich, established group who expected traditional fare – and a second group of bohemians who were there to attack the establishment. The music and its performance, then, represented a struggle between new and old, establishment and a new order. Sacre became a symbol of change. The music itself came to have much greater impact than the ballet, and is one of the most-recorded pieces of all time. There are more than 100 recordings available. The video below is conducted by Valery Gergiev with the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Ballet.

The version that will be performed at Ojai this summer is by the Bad Plus. Obviously not the original score. Transcriptions are an interesting genre. Many attempt to be faithful to the original and end up sounding like pale facsimiles. The Bad Plus version is not that at all. The rhythms, mad instrumental flourishes and driving beats make you believe that maybe this – this! – is the way Stravinsky might have heard the piece if he were alive at the beginning of the 21st Century and not the 20th.

Out of its context of the original performance, Rite of Spring is still a remarkable and evocative piece. It’s even possible to see why the music would have been so shocking. But riots? That was about matters much bigger than this piece or the composer. Yet the reaction, the battle for ideas about what art and music should do, helped set the stage for a century of experimentation and pushing to explore what was new. Rite of Spring, then, was a perfect reflection of its time.

QUESTIONS: If the 20th Century was a debate about what art and music is, and if the ability to shock was one of the artist’s best tools for accomplishing this, does music still have the ability to shock? Is there anything new left to be said?


  1. Sasha Anawalt says

    Really interesting. That breath toward the end scared me. And the static made me feel like I was in a prison, or hiding during war and listening to radio for news in the music station, but did I hear correctly? Watery compared to full orchestra for Stravinsky. More pools than earth. I look forward to hearing this at Ojai.

  2. William Duxler says

    The Marinsky performance of the beloved classic that Rite of Spring has become, was familiar and pleasant to listen to. The fresh, new, exciting Bad Plus excerpt answers the question by showing there is plenty left to be said. It’s not the familiar version, but the essence of Rite of Spring is still there. I can’t wait to hear the whole performance at Ojai.

  3. OMG! how come such a beautiful and powerful music and dance can be the object of people’s protests ? I think they were looking for an excuse to rebel against the status-quo.

  4. Cherrie Henkle says

    I believe that as long as we as artists still have opinions and feelings, and a way to express them we will never run out of things to say. It may be something that has been said before, but each artist can say it in a unique way, making an old concept into something bright and new! If we lose the passion for expressing ourselves, we have lost the artist inside. Music will ALWAYS have the ability to shock, so long as there is an audience really listening to the message in the song. For example love. As old as Romeo & Juliet’s story is, each person that reads it will feel something just a tiny bit different from the next. Music is the same if you’re actually listening to and feeling what the artist is trying to portray.

  5. Samantha Dias says

    In my opinion art and music have always shocked society and that has helped to bring about reform. Artists from all fields have the courage to stand up for their convictions against mainstream beliefs. There is always a new perspective that music can bring even to a topic like love which has been a favourite subject for so many decades, yet with each generation and musician, its meaning is modified. But if music is to truly shock its audience it must come from the very soul of the musician and not created for mere commercial need. Music crosses all barriers of language,creed, country and even time.
    To me new topics include, the wisdom of children, stepping out of our comfortable lives and really looking at the world around us, reflecting on how people and culture and being mass produced, individuality and originality vs. plagiarism and much more. The Internet has given us access to a world of knowledge and tools that we can use to create so much more that its disappointing when it’s misused.