Igor Stravinsky: Revolutionary or reactionary?
Among the many dates given for the-end-of-civilisation-as-we-knew-it, none exerts a more romantic tug on the modern imagination than May 29, 1913, the night that Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring turned into a public riot in Paris.
As the ballerinas danced and the orchestra played in the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, punches were thrown in the aisles, hats were smashed in with canes and the police were called to clear the house. Stravinsky, stunned by the uproar, clung with both hands to his choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, desperate to keep him out of trouble. Serge Diaghilev, the impresario, ordered the electricians to switch the lights on and off. Next morning, the ambassador of the Austro-Hungarian Empire delivered a diplomatic protest to the Quai d'Orsay over an insult hurled at him by an unnamed person, possibly the composer Maurice Ravel.
Preposterous as it may seem, the ambassador's protest was not altogether irrelevant. For, on that immortal night of spring 100 years ago, the cultural turned decidedly political and the art of music threatened momentarily to overturn the existing order.
So here's my question: why didn't it?
We know, with the benefit of retrospect, that Europe in 1913, rotten through and through, was about to waste a whole generation in the greatest war on earth. We know, too, that the resources of traditional art were close to exhaustion. Pablo Picasso had blown the whistle on figurative painting. Arnold Schoenberg was driving music over an atonal cliff. Stravinsky had discovered rhythm as an alternative to melody, something the inventors of American popular music were developing in tandem on the stoops of Lower East Side brownstones. Innovation beckoned. There had never been a better time for the new to defeat the old, culturally and politically, and yet the opportunity went begging.
Where was the next riot? Trumpeted by the media, the Rite of Spring should have incited copycat brawls in dozens of theatres, howls of urban outrage, hyperactive manifestos. And nothing happened. Aside from two disturbances in Vienna at the outbreak of Arnold Schoenberg's atonalities and a certain amount of hissing in London when Henry Wood repeated them at the Proms, the public sat back in their seats and let radical novelties wash over their nodding heads.