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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. 

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victor eskenasy
June 22nd, 2013
1:06 PM
Yes, Jonathan and correctly. It's strange that the most important testimony is forgotten by most of the critics who wrote this year about the Rite. Evidently the reactions where directed most of them against the ballet not to the music itself! I wrote about, but Norman didn't read... Romanian :)

Jonathan Sternberg
May 31st, 2013
9:05 PM
If you want the real story, little of which appears here, you must consult the memoirs of Pierre Monteux, whose name never appears in any of these reports.

May 31st, 2013
1:05 PM
Pointless article .....

Maxim Gershunoff
May 31st, 2013
1:05 PM
Having known Igor Stravinsky personally and professionally, as I did, he made specific comment to me of young writers asking about "Rite of Spring," "They would ask 'How did you ever compose music so descriptive of infinity matching the scenery with its symbol of infinity?' Did you ever hear such a stupid question? They tend to overintellectualize. Example...if pianist in pit at silent movie improvise by accident what is happening on screen, he is genius." As regarding revising his score "making it more manageable to conductor and orchestra," perhaps you overlooked his actual motiviation which was to keep his scores changed over so slightly for the purpose of renewing copyrights and continuing royalties.

John Borstlap
May 31st, 2013
11:05 AM
The gist of this article is, although contrary to received wisdom, TRUE: Stravinsky did not violate the fundamentals of the art form, which are rooted in tonality, being the natural 'gravity force' that keeps sounds and notes together and provides the means of meaningful narrative and expression. If anything, he added new ways of intensifying tonality (as Wagner did with his Tristan). Schönberg however, went over the brink and came-back with something utterly artificial not based upon the natural overtone series (which define tonality): twelve-tone 'music', which sounds like all the wrong notes Brahms had left out. Stravinsky's so-called 'neo-classicism' was not 'pandering to audiences' and 'reactionary', but a normal artistic reaction upon a period of wild experimentation, and his music of this period is, in fact, expressive as any good music is (violin concerto, piano concerto, Apollon, Symphony of Psalms, etc.). Schönberg however, got stuck in his quasi-classical attempts to 'revive' the musical tradition.

May 30th, 2013
4:05 PM
Modernism really began much before the 20th century,it took the ideals of "the enlightenment "reaching a certian level of saturation to become apparent. The machine gave the Industrial powers the illusions of humans conquering nature,uninterupted progress,and esp of having triumphed over the base,the primative, the barbaric, lower ,animal nature and so on. Rite of Spring is the prelude to the nemeisis of such hubris, which soon arrived as WWI

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