May 29, 2013 marks the centennial of one of the most storied premieres in modern history; namely, that of the ballet, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The music was composed by Igor Stravinsky, with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, performed by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; the orchestra was conducted by Pierre Monteux.
The year 1913 saw a number of remarkable events that reflected a certain seismic activity in the arts and sciences in the early 20th century, including publication of Einstein’s theory of relativity; the International Exhibit of Modern Art (the “Armory Show”) which brought modern artists such as Kandinsky, Lachaise, and Duchamp to American audiences; and Henry Ford’s invention of the factory assembly line.
The musical world in 1913 was not immune to the shock of the new. Austrian audiences booed a performance of new works by Webern, Schoenberg, Berg, and Zemlinsky. Russian audiences heaped scorn on a production of Strauss’s Elektra. Luigi Russolo published his futurist manifesto, “The Art of Noises”, in Italy. Prokofiev’s performance in St. Petersburg of his Second Piano Concerto drove audiences from the concert hall.
Inspired by Slav pagan rituals celebrating spring, Le Sacre was music and dance never before experienced in a concert setting. Dissonant sonorities assaulted the ear. Jagged rhythms shocked. The choreography, punishing for the dancers, repelled all notion of fluidity, grace, or charm. The Parisian audience was aghast, and loudly expressed its contempt. While the “riot” has become the stuff of legend and we cannot truly know what happened that evening, it was nonetheless a profound moment in the history of the arts.
Charles Joseph, in his 2011 book, Stravinsky’ Ballets, writes: “What may have been lost amid the hullabaloo was an uncompromising musico-choreographic assault upon the fossilized traditions of both arts. The Rite of Spring sounded a cry of emancipation intent on establishing new territory for those willing accept the audacity of a genuine cultural sea change.”
Critics of subsequent performances opined:
“The music of Le Sacre du Printemps baffles verbal description. To say that much of it is hideous as sound is a mild description… Practically it has no relation to music at all as most of us understand the word”—Musical Times, London, August 1, 1913.
“Never before has such a challenge been made to human ears… this music sounds like a wager that one could make the simple-minded public and the snobs of our concert halls swallow anything at all”—H. Moreno, Le Ménestral, Paris, June 6, 1914.
“Listening to the Rite of Spring might be regarded as more of an affliction than a privilege”—Philadelphia Public Ledger, March 4, 1922.
In the following decades, Le Sacre du Printemps found its rightful place in the canon of 20th century art music. In 1977 the "Sacrificial Dance" movement was even included on NASA’s “Golden Record”, an LP recording of music, languages, and other sounds of our planet, which launched with Voyager 1 and 2. These rockets, with their sonic cargo, still travel through space, and are today as far as 18 billion kilometers from earth.
The Music Library and Archive of Recorded Sound offer numerous resources for the study and enjoyment of this monumental work, including streaming media resources accessible to Stanford students, faculty, and staff.