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.
Revivals of the Rite of Spring passed without fuss — ”received with scarcely a sign of opposition”, noted The Times in London. The Paris melée was a one-off, a curiosity, an event of mere nostalgic merit to be marked this year by centennial recordings, radio discussions and academic reconstructions: an historical anomaly.
Or was it? Might the riot have meaning beyond its moment in time? Rereading first-night reports, we find familiar stereotypes at play. The audience was, then as now, showy, rich and easily distracted. Freed from formality by the ferocity of the music and the bizarre, stuttering steps that Nijinsky had devised for his maidens, the bourgeoisie erupted at what it perceived as an affront to its expectations. This was not what it had paid to see and hear.
And then the rioters went home and forgot about it, for there is nothing that so terrifies the middle classes as instability, especially of its own making. This was the riot literally to end all theatre riots, because it threatened the very foundations of public entertainment.
Stravinsky himself was, on first response (he later changed his tune), “not very much upset”. Backstage, he told a journalist that he could “quite understand” people’s inability to grasp his music. “What is unjustifiable, however, is the lack of goodwill on the audience’s part,” he complained. “An unexpected novelty disconcerts Paris, but Paris will know how to regain its composure.” How well he knew his public.
Next morning Claude Debussy wired him a dinner invitation, not mentioning the premiere. As far as composers were concerned, this was business as usual. Two hostile critics had their fingers on the button. Henri Quittard in Le Figaro accused Stravinsky of “laborious and puerile barbarism”, while Adolphe Boschot in L’Echo de Paris said the composer had “worked at bringing his music close to noise”. These snap verdicts ring truer than a century of reverent commentaries, acclaiming the Rite as a milestone in musical modernism. It was, I would argue, the very opposite.
Stravinsky had reached into the feral sources of Russian civilisation, far into the unforgiving tundra where life is raucous, brutal and cheap. His sub-titles describe abduction, human sacrifice, tribal wars, worship. A lone bassoon heralds a pagan ceremony, followed by a pounding of war drums. This was not an augury of human progress. It was a glorification of primitivism that challenged the values of modern society. Its response was reciprocal violence.
Much the same anxieties were aroused when Schoenberg exposed Vienna to the idea that a tonal scale which defined the notes C and E as harmony and B and D as discord was not the only option open to a composer. When Schoenberg veered off the octave in the middle of his second string quartet, he was embracing not a bold, new atonality of unfettered freedoms but a forgotten pre-tonality — the open mode that existed before the establishment of Western classical music. Schoenberg, like Stravinsky, was turning the clock back, not forward.
Both men acknowledged this ambivalence by their subsequent decisions. Stravinsky, uprooted from Russia by war and Bolshevism, went on to invent a neo-classical style that, reactionary by definition, pampered audiences with comfort sounds. Schoenberg, “a conservative who was forced to become a revolutionary”, grew quickly out of anything-goes atonality and replaced it with a synthetic, serial scale of 12 notes in a preordained order that would reinvent music rather than revert it to chaos. Stravinsky, late in life, embraced Schoenberg’s serialism as his badge of modernity. The Rite had been, in this respect, a regressive aberration.
He twice revised its score, in 1921 and again in 1943, for the purpose of making it “more manageable for conductor and orchestra”. It had never been his intention to disrupt public order, or to renounce the unspoken entente cordiale between composers and audiences that each will kindly tolerate the other. In the spring of 1913, two composers tested that alliance to its limits. None has ever breached it again.