Centennials usually mark political events. But today, May 29, 2013, marks the hundredth anniversary of a cultural event: the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring, performed by the Ballets Russes at the Théatre des Champs Elysées in Paris. That performance became the stuff of legend, having occasioned – or said to have occasioned – a riot or near riot.
In a Teaching Company course about Stravinsky, Robert Greenberg relates, among other things, that the sight of a group of ballerinas bending their heads to the right inspired shouts of “Get a dentist!” That detail made its way into Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, a 2009 movie by Jan Lounen that centered on an affair between the two. But the affair may be a legend, and the riot, or at least the scale of it, may also be.
In a piece at the Huffington Post last week, William Robin reported on a conference at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow where, among other things, the historical reality of the “riot” came into question.
Tamara Levitz offered an analysis of the violence pregnant not only in The Rite's scenario but also in its reception. The 2013 celebrations of The Rite have embraced the somewhat historically-tenuous idea that it provoked a riot at its premiere, a fact that has obscured the forgotten, real riots of the 20th century. In fact, as Levitz pointed out, the victory of the conflation of The Rite with a riot can be attributed to impresario Serge Diaghilev, whose marketing ploy in engineering the scandal at the premiere has helped guarantee the work its legendary status today.
Diaghilev was certainly a master showman, but in previous productions of novel works by Stravinsky and others, he had let the music speak for itself. Perhaps contemporary as well as later accounts of the riot were exaggerated, but it is hard to believe that they were entirely made up, or that the whole thing was somehow stage-managed. Yet in one sense, it doesn’t matter: the important thing is that The Rite of Spring changed the course of classical music. Other composers like Beethoven had changed the course of music before, but for a single work to achieve that was truly epochal.
The ballet is being restaged today, or its music played, all over the world. The centennial performance at the Theatre des Champs Elysées itself by the Mariinsky Ballet from St. Petersburg, is among those using the 1913 choreography of Vladislav Nijinsky, revived by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987. It was thought irretrievably lost but was reconstructed after years of research, primarily by Millicent Hodson, who pieced it together from clues in original prompt books, contemporary sketches and photographs, and the recollections of those still living who had taken part, including Marie Rambert (who had worked with Nijinsky). Here is the complete Mariinsky performance:
For 1913, the choreography was as revolutionary as the music itself, and had at least as as much shock value. But it was abandoned in later productions, and other versions replaced it – several are being performed this year. Stravinsky himself tinkered with the score a number of times, but hardly as much as Walt Disney in Fantasia (1940), where the virgin sacrifice story was replaced by imagined prehistory, especially the age of the dinosaurs:
If nothing else, Fantasia proved that Stravinsky had made it as a popular composer: it’s hard to imagine that Disney would have found any use for the music of other musical experimentalists like Alban Berg or Arnold Schoenberg. Nearly four decades later, John Williams quoted the opening dance of The Rite of Spring in his score for Star Wars, beginning at 1:03 in this clip:
Four years before that, however, Nino Rota had quoted the same passage in “Duca di Wurttemberg,” one of the pieces for Federico Fellini’s Casanova. Rota was known for his melodic scores for other Fellini movies, and such international hits as The Godfather. But he was a long-time friend of Stravinsky, and wanted to pay him homage. The clip below is from a performance that looks like a recording session for Fellini’s Casanova, but isn’t – the orchestration for the film was a bit different, and the singer in the version used there was a man:
Stravinsky’s influence on classical music was being felt much earlier, as witness The Miraculous Mandarin, a ballet composed in 1918-24 by the Hungarian Béla Bartok. It scandalized the audience and was banned in Germany after its 1926 premiere in Cologne. Small wonder, based on its scenario: two tramps use a seductive woman to lure victims in order to rob them. But when they try the same thing with a wealthy Chinese, he becomes obsessed with the woman; the tramps try to kill him several times, but he won’t die until she embraces him. Only disconnected excerpts of the ballet itself appear to be available online, but here’s one of those, followed by the entire score:
Bartok had previously composed a ballet called The Wooden Prince (1916) that was more traditional in story and melodic music, but he later turned to an aggressively rhythmic style of music more in the vein of Stravinsky, including two piano concertos that were more percussive than melodic, and orchestral pieces like Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. Yet, with his fellow countryman Zoltan Kodaly, he was also involved in collecting Hungarian folk music – not just gypsy dances – that could be incorporated into classical music.
Although it wasn’t obvious to Parisians in 2013, much of the score for The Rite of Spring itself had its roots in Russian folk music. Folk music had been made use of before, but it had generally been prettified; Stravinsky focused on the essence of what was then called “primitive” music, although it wouldn’t be politically correct to call it that today. Latin American composers soon began mixing classical music with elements of native music, as with Brazil’s Heitor Villa Lobos, whose Choros No. 10 (said to have been a sensation at its Paris premiere in 1926). The first part incorporated bird calls; the second, shown below, segues from native rhythm into a haunting melody based on the popular Brazilian song “Rasga o Coracão” – and the singers (especially the women) really get into it:
In Mexico, Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemaya (1937) was inspired by a poem of the same name by Cuba’s Nicolàs Guillèn, which evokes an Afro-Caribbean ritual killing of a snake. Revueltas’ piece is purely orchestral, although there has been a choral adaptation in recent years. And the piece is used in the movie Sin City by Robert Rodriguez, who said it had influenced the rest of the score:
Arlington Road (1999), directed by Mark Pellington, deals with paranoia and conspiracy, which are much in the public consciousness these days. But its first scene, in which we see a boy on a bicycle who has somehow been seriously wounded, and is rescued and taken to the hospital by a neighbor who has no idea what that will get him into, is yet another example of the influence of Stravinsky on popular music. Nothing to do with folk music this time, or specifically The Rite of Spring, but Angelo Badalamenti embraces the method of Stravinsky (with electronic music for the driving rhythms) in “Bloody Boy,” which segues into a piece by British techno band Lunatic Calm called “Neon Reprise.” For some reason, the clip below is incorrectly credited to another movie, The Beach, on which Badalamenti also worked:
Strangely, one composer least influenced by The Rite of Spring was Stravinsky himself. He had already taken the ballet world by storm with The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911), and for all the controversy surrounding Rite, it had a good run on tour. But then something happened: the Great War, now known as World War I. After that dreadful conflict, people wanted to return to normalcy – Stravinsky among them, turning to neo-classicism. His first postwar ballet for Diaghilev was Pulcinella (1920), inspired by 18th Century music. That sort of music was played fairly straight in the first part, but he took comic liberties with it in later sections, one of which features an orchestral Bronx cheer. One modernist element was costumes by Pablo Picasso, but this production has dispensed with all or most of those:
From neo-classicism, Stravinsky turned after World War II to serial composition, a form that follows a strict mathematical logic but doesn’t relate to the way most people actually experience music, as witness The Flood (1962), based on the Biblical story of Noah and the Ark:
Only once during all these years did Stravinsky return to the kind of music that had made him Stravinsky. Oddly enough, it was during World War II, when he was tinkering with the score of Rite, that he began work on his Symphony in Three Movements, which premiered in 1946 and shows the obvious influence of his earlier work:
But think of all the other music we would never have heard but for Stravinsky, because it would never have been composed. Critics have seen his more subtle influence in works as varied as those of Francis Poulenc and Aaron Copland (At a New York Philharmonic retrospective on Stravinsky’s work and influence I attended many years ago, among the works featured one evening was Poulenc’s Concerto in G minor for organ, strings, and timpani (1938).
I can still remember that the program notes included an anecdote about Stravinsky. I can’t vouch for its authenticity online, but the story went that somebody had described Poulenc to Stravinsky as “eclectic.” Stravinsky was said to have responded: “Eclectic? The man’s a kleptomaniac.”
Plagiarism may be a sin, but inspired kleptomania may be a virtue in the arts.