My birthday tribute to The Rite of Spring - a piece of music without which my life might have been very different - is out in today's Independent. (Own obligatory book plug here.) Below, please find the director's cut. First, here's a fascinating interview with Monica Mason, Kenneth MacMillan's original Chosen Maiden, about the making of his version, with extracts of dancing from the amazing Ed Watson, the most recent male Chosen One at Covent Garden, among others.
THE RITE OF SPRING
It was probably the most cataclysmic moment in the history of music. On 29 May 1913 the curtain rose at Paris’s Théatre des Champs-Elysées on the new ballet Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky to a score by Igor Stravinsky. Minutes later the place was in uproar. This event set the music of the 20th century in motion as surely as the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand 13 months later heralded a terrifying new age in warfare, politics and society.
Speaking recently at the first night of the Southbank Centre’s year-long festival of 20th and 21st-century music, The Rest is Noise, the artistic director Jude Kelly termed this era “the age of violence”. And in 1913 The Rite of Spring was indubitably the most violent music the world had yet heard. Harmony is slashed, cubic, multilayered. Often the orchestra effectively plays in two keys at once. Melody, when it is present at all, is fragmentary, suggesting the ambience and contours of folk songs. Rhythm drives the whole thing, but those rhythms – elemental, driven, clashing – are anything but predictable, throwing the listener about like a runaway train. Stravinsky sets up a pattern only in order to shatter it. It has been suggested that the work contains “a touch of sadism”.
The ballet’s story is indeed cruel. An imaginary ancient tribe sacrifices a young virgin to propitiate the god of spring. We are hapless witnesses as the Chosen Maiden is selected, glorified, then forced to dance herself to death. It is a gut-wrenching idea that could seem almost to tap into a primitive bloodlust. Whether or not that was deliberate on Stravinsky’s part, or Nijinsky’s, is something we’ll probably never know.
Stravinsky claimed that he had the idea for the ballet in a “fleeting vision”. But someone else needs to receive more credit for dreaming it up: the ballet’s designer, the Russian artist and philosopher Nicholas Roerich, who was far more deeply engaged with matters of folklore – besides Theosophy and occult mysticism – than the composer himself. Stravinsky’s earlier ballets drew on fairy stories and Russian folk music, but the wellsprings of horror that underlie The Rite are never fully present. Stravinsky certainly developed the scenario in collaboration with Roerich, and later the artist was furious to see his crucial role in its creation downgraded while the composer hogged the glory.
Not that there was much of that to be had from the hissing and cat-calling on the first night. The protest broke out shortly after curtain-up. Stravinsky fled the auditorium and observed the rest of the performance from backstage: “I have never again been that angry,” he recalled. Serge Diaghilev – the impresario behind the Ballets russes de Monte Carlo, responsible for commissioning all concerned – was nevertheless rather satisfied with the outcome. Even then, there was no such thing as bad publicity.
The “riot at The Rite” has been the subject of endless scrutiny. Doubt has been cast on whether it really amounted to a riot at all; noise, yes, but fist-fights, probably not, though around 40 people are said to have been thrown out of the theatre. In all likelihood the disapprobation was directed at Nijinsky’s eccentric and ungainly choreography, rather than Stravinsky’s efforts; after all, with so much noise, the music was scarcely audible. Commentators have pointed to all manner of issues at stake that night, from a faction in attendance that was loyal to Diaghilev’s better-established choreographer, Mikhail Fokine, to the sensitivities of a French audience beleaguered by the tense atmosphere that prefigured World War I. But some composers who heard it were not happy either; Puccini attended on the second night and dubbed it the work of “a madman”.
Stravinsky emerged from the fracas dispirited; he feared that the hostile reception would shatter the momentum he had achieved following enthusiastic responses to his first two ballets, The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911). But just under a year later, The Rite was rescued when the conductor Pierre Monteux championed it at the Casino de Paris, purely as a concert piece. Allowed to stand or fall on its musical merits, The Rite rose triumphant.
Today The Rite of Spring has achieved a popularity that Stravinsky could only have dreamed of on that notorious first night. It is a tribute to him that even after a century in which every traditional parameter of music – tonality, rhythm, melody, sonority – has been subverted or destroyed, this work has lost none of its power. In a year dominated to excess by composers’ anniversaries – Wagner, Verdi and Britten – The Rite, only about half an hour long, is enjoying a similar celebration in its own right.
If anything, its power has increased with familiarity (no doubt helped along when Disney animated it with volcanoes and dinosaurs in Fantasia). It is a concert staple, a modern classic. Last year the London Symphony Orchestra and the conductor Valery Gergiev performed it in Trafalgar Square; a 10,000-strong audience turned out to cheer it on. In the theatre, numerous choreographers have turned their hand to its reinterpretation, from Kenneth MacMillan’s geometric marvels to the heartbreaking terror of Pina Bausch’s version for her Tanztheater Wuppertal.
We can expect plenty more of it this year. Sadler’s Wells is to stage a celebration entitled A String of Rites, including Michael Keegan Dolan’s choreography of The Rite for Fabulous Beast, a large-scale community project and a new, full-evening ballet by Akram Khan, entitled iTMOi (in the mind of Igor), with new music by Nitin Sawhney, Jocelyn Pook and Ben Frost. And first, the work features in a concert in The Rest is Noise, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It’s clear that as it reaches its hundredth birthday Stravinsky’s most famous score has become as perennial as spring itself.
The Rite of Spring features in The Rest is Noise at the Royal Festival Hall on 16 February with the London Philharmonic conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Box office: 0844 875 0073
MUSIC THAT SHOCKED
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Wagner’s opera changed the face of music when later composers fell under the spell of its harmonic language; but its eroticism scandalised many listeners. Clara Schumann wrote: “It was the most repulsive thing...To be forced to see and listen to such sexual frenzy the whole evening, in which every feeling of decency is violated …I endured it to the end since I wanted to hear the whole lot!”
Georges Bizet: Carmen (1875)
Bizet’s opera was a flop when it first opened at Paris’s Opéra-Comique. It broke the conventions of the venue’s repertoire by ending in murder and tragedy; and the sexually liberated Carmen was regarded as a scandalous, immoral heroine. The opera’s many admirers included Nietzche and also Tchaikovsky, who was greatly influenced by it, but Bizet died three months after the world premiere and never saw its success.
Richard Strauss: Salome (1905)
Strauss amplified Oscar Wilde’s play about the lust-maddened princess and her demand for the head of John the Baptist with music that mixed sensual beauty with claustrophobic and violent excess. Salome’s final scena over the severed head culminates in a chord that encapsulates her depravity so thoroughly that tracts have been written about this moment alone. The opera was banned in London for its first two years. Strauss set out to shock – and succeeded.
Arnold Schoenberg: String Quartet No.2 (1908)
“I feel wind from other planets,” runs the Stefan George poem that Schoenberg set for soprano and string quartet in this ground-breaking work. So did its audience. The planet in question was the final movement’s experiment in “atonality”: a piece written without any tonal centre, giving an impression of floating, unrooted dissonance that exists for its own sake rather than for its relativity. More than a century later, the effect still sounds radical.
John Adams: The Death of Klinghoffer (1991)
Based on the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, Adams’s opera fell foul of ferocious international sensitivities. Planned productions were cancelled and some responses expressed horror that the work should dare to portray the emotions of characters on both sides. After 9/11, an article in the New York Times accused it of “romanticizing terrorism”. Its UK stage premiere finally took place at English National Opera last year, to considerable acclaim.