December 2 2010
For the first time, I’ve been watching video footage from Stravinsky/Nijinksky’s ballet Rite of Spring, and have asked myself, what would happen if the work was premiered today? The premiere of the Rite of Spring by the Ballet Russe in 1913 is famous for being the scene of one of the most significant artistic riots in Western history, and is often used as a textbook example of art being ahead of it’s time, unappreciated by it’s contemporary audience – but amidst the boos and hisses it somehow emerges as being recognised as one of the great works in the Western canon, virtually becoming a symbol of 20th century art music. This in itself is odd – somehow we identify 20th century art music with a piece that is most famous for the fact that it started a riot – the symbolism is telling! Composers Unite – even the most famous of all pieces was hated once by a misunderstanding public who just didn’t ‘get’ it.
Or are we the ones who misunderstand it? It ashamedly occurred to me that I had never actually seen the Rite in it’s ballet context. Somehow ‘Music’ has taken all the credit for the 1913 riot. So I watched it. For me, the Rite, in it’s proper context, is a confronting work. The ballet is violent, it is sex, it is unnatural, it evokes the same feelings inside you that you get watching The Exorcist. It is brilliant, but it is not light entertainment. It is masculine, it is feminine, it is primitive, it is scary, it makes you want to move – and the choreography seems to be the driving force behind this artistic confrontation. Yet, we seem to focus on the music – i guess what exactly caused the riot, we will never really know.
So if the Rite was performed today would it cause anything close to a riot? Probably not – I was talking to a music-lover today about this, and his response was ‘well people would be too scared to say they didn’t like it’ (Composers Unite! – see how far we have come!). But what would people think? Would the audience feel confronted in the same way? Possibly. Critics and academics would have a field-day criticising the work for it’s orientalist depiction of pagan Russian culture, that’s for sure.
Apparently after the work was written, Jean Cocteau insisted on having a typewriter and foghorn in Erik Satie’s Parade, performed later by the Ballet Russe, with the aspiration of inciting another riot in Paris. Although the typewriter featured in the score, the riot never ensued, and at the end of his life Stravinsky proudly proclaimed he was responsible for the biggest ever musical riot. We don’t really associate Nijinsky in quite the same way, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has kind of developed in the popular consciousness in isolation from the choreography. This is a shame, and perhaps misleading composers into a false sense of comfort that all music was hated once. Irony.