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Happy Birthday, Rite of Spring

On May 29th, 1913, the revolutionary musical and dance composition “The Rite of Spring,” by Igor Stravinsky, was first publicly performed at Paris’ Theatre des Champs Elysees.

One of Roerich's set designs for 'Rite of Spring'
One of Roerich’s set designs for ‘Rite of Spring’

To say the world of music and dance was shaken as a result would be no exaggeration.  The composition is considered a landmark of modern, avante-garde classical music, with its experiments and innovations in dissonance, tonality, metre and rhythm.  Stravinsky is often compared to Picasso in terms of the relative impact he had upon music, and Rite of Spring is considered his most groundbreaking and influential work.  And some of the greatest names in the arts worked with Stravinsky on Rite of Spring’s realization and initial performance — it was written for and performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the original choreography was done by Vaslav Nijinsky, and the stage designs and costumes were designed by Nicholas Roerich.

Dancers from the original production

But the accolades and exalted place in cultural history which Rite of Spring now enjoys contrast sharply with the reception it received upon its initial performance.  From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ The_Rite_of_Spring:

On the evening of the 29 May the theatre was packed: Gustav Linor reported, “Never … has the hall been so full, or so resplendent; the stairways and the corridors were crowded with spectators eager to see and to hear”. … Some eyewitnesses and commentators said that the disturbances in the audience began during the Introduction, and grew into a crescendo when the curtain rose on the stamping dancers in “Augurs of Spring”… Marie


Rambert, who was working as an assistant to Nijinsky, recalled later that it was soon impossible to hear the music on the stage.  In his autobiography, Stravinsky writes that the derisive laughter that greeted the first bars of the Introduction disgusted him, and that he left the auditorium to watch the rest of the performance from the stage wings. The demonstrations, he says, grew into “a terrific uproar” which, along with the on-stage noises, drowned out the voice of Nijinsky who was shouting the step numbers to the dancers. The journalist and photographer Carl Van Vechten recorded that the person behind him got carried away with excitement, and “began to beat rhythmically on top of my head”, though Van Vechten failed to notice this at first, his own emotion being so great.

Monteux believed that the trouble began when the two factions in the audience began attacking each other, but their mutual anger was soon diverted towards the orchestra: “Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on.”  Around forty of the worst offenders were ejected—possibly with the intervention of the police, although this is uncorroborated. Through all the disturbances the performance continued without interruption. Things grew noticeably quieter during Part II, and by some accounts Maria Piltz’s rendering of the final “Sacrificial Dance” was watched in reasonable silence. At the end there were several curtain calls for the dancers, for Monteux and the orchestra, and for Stravinsky and Nijinsky before the evening’s programme continued.

Among the more hostile press reviews was that of Le Figaro‍ ’​s critic, Henri Quittard, who called the work “a laborious and puerile barbarity” and added “We are sorry to see an artist such as M. Stravinsky involve himself in this disconcerting adventure”.

Stravinsky and Diaghilev

Of course 1913 was a time when revolutionary ideas and change in the arts and culture were coming out of Greenwich Village as well.  But there is a more direct link between Rite of Spring and the Village.  Due to World War I and other factors, Rite of Spring and its ballet was not actually performed in the United States until 1930, when it was staged in Philadelphia with Greenwich Village’s own radical innovator of dance, Martha Graham, performing as “The Chosen One.”  That production soon thereafter moved to New York, where it reportedly received a much more positive reception than the original performance in Paris.

Unidentified April 30, 1930, New York City newspaper clipping showing Martha Graham and two dancers from The Rite of Spring program
Unidentified April 30, 1930, New York City newspaper clipping showing Martha Graham and two dancers from The Rite of Spring program

For those who are Martha Graham fans or want to find out more about her incredible legacy and connection to Greenwich Village, learn about our historic plaque honoring Ms. Graham at the site of her former dance studio at 66 Fifth Avenue and 13th Street which was placed on June 18, 2015 (view video here).

One response to “Happy Birthday, Rite of Spring

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