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100 Years After The Riot, The 'Rite' Remains

One hundred years ago, a landmark of modern music was unveiled before a Paris audience. And that audience famously and mercilessly greeted it with boos, jeers and hisses. It was the premiere of the Ballets Russes' The Rite of Spring.

The setting was a primeval village whose ritual culminated in the choice and sacrifice of a young maiden. The choreographer was the company's legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. The composer of the score was in seat M-20, a young Igor Stravinsky.

Years later, Stravinsky would be faulted for lacking the innovative spirit of his youth, but that night, a century ago, the Paris audience wasn't buying. San Francisco Symphony director and PBS's Keeping Score host Michael Tilson Thomas spoke to NPR's Robert Siegel about that infamous night, the work's longevity and The Rite's surprising singability. You can listen to the radio version at the audio link and read more of their conversation below.

Set the stage for us. What would a Paris audience — or this audience in May 1913 — reasonably expect at the premiere of a new ballet with new choreography and new music?

"They would be expecting to see something bright, colorful, exotic, with lots of leaping, lots of diaphanous costumes that would give you occasional lovely glimpses of gorgeous anatomy. That's not what they got. They got a very dark piece with people mostly moving on the floor, even writhing on the floor. They were all wearing very dark costumes that looked like animal skins and they had very puffy sleeves and hats and very odd, strange movements that they made — very angular, funny movements. And, of course, there was a score, which was at that time being very courageously played, but which must have been right on the edges of what was comprehensible to the musicians and the public."

There's an irony here, which is that Sergei Diaghilev, the great impresario, and Stravinsky, the composer, were both Russians eager to mine the veins of Russian folk tradition for themes. The place not to do that was in Russia, where St. Petersburg was famously Francophile at this point. But Paris was supposed to be a place where people would be interested in such things.

I don't think to [Stravinsky] this music was brutal music; I think it was just music packed full of life and demanding elaborate and finely wrought execution.

"That's true and so they were in pieces like Prince Igor or other things that were these kind of elegant, noble, czarist fantasies or the fairy-tale world of Rimsky-Korsakov. But the thing that was so extraordinary about The Rite of Spring was that it was not the perspective of a cultural anthropologist observing these quaint behaviors of ancient village people. The music seemed to take you into the actual minds and spirits of those people so that you understood very vividly the kinds of emotions, the kinds of fears, the kinds of lusts and thrusts which were a part of their essential existence. That was very shocking to the world of Paris. ... Parisian society dealt in these things, but they were very carefully put away in appropriate boudoirs and environments selected for that purpose, not out there onstage being observed by a mixed company of men and women."

It was a country that spoke with that irony of a civilizing mission throughout the world, but this ballet is telling them, "That's us! That's you out there! That's you onstage! These are our ancestors; this is where we started. This is how music began for people."

"Yes and, of course, one thing I find so extraordinary about The Rite of Spring is the joyousness of the piece. It really is about renewal of life, and it is true that the renewal of life involves a woman being sacrificed. But her sacrifice is accomplished by she herself dancing into a frenzy, which kills her. She's not killed by anyone; she herself kind of goes across this great leap into life and death."

Let's back up a bit and start with what the audience first heard when The Rite of Spring was being introduced. So they heard an instrument which I gather would be unrecognizable. It's a bassoon.

Well, it was a very unusual sound: the bassoon playing in such a high register. It had, of course, existed in French music, but not quite in this overt, undisguised way. And what the bassoon was playing was a melody of ancient Russia — well, it was really more Ukrainian than Russian — [a] melody with all of the odd little ornaments.

Yes, and throughout the piece, as you illustrate in your documentary about it, there are very unusual combinations of instruments that Stravinsky scores. Each individual instrument might not have been so unusual, but two kinds of clarinets playing at the same time was producing a sound people would be totally unprepared for.

Yes, and, of course, they were playing in dissonant intervals. I mean, most of The Rite of Spring is very melodic, but the melody is very often being played in dissonant intervals — parallel intervals — so that produces a very odd and ecstatic flavor in the music.

From what you've been able to figure — and I gather you met Stravinsky when he was well on in his years and living in the U.S. — did he set out to shock that night, do you think? Was he courting, you know, the rage against the modern or did he assume that people would applaud this and be satisfied with it?

I think he may have had some thoughts on how controversial the evening would be. ... Certainly Diaghilev did and very likely was hoping that there would be a big scandal because it would be great publicity for him and for the company.

What is so essential about The Rite of Spring is what Stravinsky described in the composing of its "Danse Sacrale" ("Sacrifical Dance"). He said of it that he was able to play it for some time on the piano before he could imagine how it could be written down. That's such a provocative statement because it suggests that through his improvisations, through this dance between the rational and irrational, inspired parts of himself, that he'd gotten himself to a world of musical associations that was just beyond any previously existing model. And he kind of had to take that very strong, primitive, visionary mixture of odd, displaced rhythms and accents and squeals and grunts and crunches and imagine how it could be written just in musical notation and then imagine how that could be made into sounds to be produced by a luxurious symphony orchestra. And in both of these things he succeeded very, very well.

Take us back to that evening 100 years ago. What happened? How bad did it get?

Well, as the music was continuing, people began to shout out comments from the audience. Like when they saw a group of maidens dancing in odd posture, they said, "Somebody get her a dentist!" Things like that. And then people began to boo and hiss and kind of sing burlesque imitations of the music and it was just a general murmur of disapproval that got louder and louder. Stravinsky left his seat in the auditorium, made his way backstage and was able to observe onstage the ballet going on with Nijinsky standing on the side there, also yelling out the numbers in Russian very, very loudly for the dancers — the counts to which the dancers dance which of course had nothing to do with the rhythmic structure of the piece, but nonetheless he was yelling, you know, "13, 14, 15, 16, 17," these long numbers which in Russian are polysyllabic. So he was yelling these numbers as loudly as he could because the dancers couldn't anymore hear where they were in the music.

You mean because the audience was making too much noise?

Exactly; it can be a very unnerving experience. Something like this happened to me: About 20 or 30 years ago, I premiered a piece by Steve Reich at Carnegie Hall and the audience became so restive and people were yelling and screaming back and forth at one another and again I had to start saying the numbers of the piece to my colleagues very, very loudly, "15, 16, 17, 18, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5," really screaming at the top of my voice so that we could distinguish where we were in the music.

And when the piece ended, there was an instant of silence and then an avalanche of boos and calls and bravos and I mean it was very, very startling, of course. We went backstage and Steve was as white as a sheet, but I said, "Steve, this is amazing! Nothing like this has happened since The Rite of Spring premiere and I guarantee you tomorrow morning, everyone in the world will know that this took place."

The jeering at The Rite of Spring can be invoked on behalf of some very interesting, good music that's not well-received at first and also some totally cerebral music that is so private, so anti-melodic that frankly it doesn't deserve a re-listening.

Yeah, well, I don't think the issue of cerebral or anti-melodic really applies to this case. What this is really about is a much more basic matter, which is that it is possible for an artwork to initially shock people and thus attain great attention for itself. But whether or not that work will hang around, whether people will still be interested in it years later, decades later in classical music, hundreds of years later, is another question.

Now what did happen with The Rite of Spring is that shortly after the stage premiere there was a purely concert premiere which went much better, and over the next years it was widely recognized by musicians what a stunning, very difficult but amazing piece it was. This is what can happen, what does happen in the world of the performing arts because whatever sensation, whatever riot, whatever scandal may be created by a first performance, it really depends those years later, those decades later, whether the audience still finds the piece to be an arresting and interesting journey to take.

Take away the audience's behavior that night and for that matter, take away the choreography and even the element of human sacrifice. Does Stravinsky's music — is it a landmark by itself? If it had simply been played by concert, would it stand as a major turning point in 20th century music?

I think it's possible to sing your way straight through 'The Rite of Spring' because it has very continuous, sinuous gestures.

Absolutely, because it takes folkloric material and evolves it, abstracts it into something very penetrating, very revelatory of the underlying, psychological drives in these pieces in both chant and dance music coming out of village music life. I mean, there are many other composers who around the same time were wrestling with this issue — the kind of issue of not correcting folk music but rather focusing on the unusual and angular aspects of it.

Examples of this, well, of course, Bartok in later time, a little bit later; Charles Ives exactly of the same time capitalizing on the so-called mistakes of country musicians and making that part of his essential musical language. So Stravinsky was doing this, but he really was continuing the tradition of Rimsky-Korsakov and other people in the Russian circle before him — everything about it to glorify Russian folklore, to glorify the condition of the villagers, to evoke a prehistoric non-Christian past. All these things were very much in the tradition of St. Petersburg intellectuals who explored these kinds of matters because in these kinds of pieces, issues concerning the nature of Russia itself and the lot and condition of its people could be examined.

But I can only imagine what the upper crust of St. Petersburg would have done had he premiered this there.

Yes, how could we have come from this? Or how is it possible that what's being glorified here is a culture which mostly exists amongst the serfs on our estates in the country. It's very amusing to hear them. We can get sentimental about it, but we certainly don't think of that as anything of lasting importance. And, of course, Stravinsky's piece beyond The Rite of Spring was a piece called Les Noces, which was an abstraction of a Russian village wedding. A great masterpiece — some think the most essential masterpiece of the Stravinsky first period. And again, it's based on things that people in the aristocracy would have known from their experiences in the country, but that they didn't take seriously.

It's just like what had happened with Diaghilev when he first had put on his big exhibition of Russian art some decades earlier and he'd gone all around Russia visiting country estates and everyone there had shown him all of their precious French and Italian collections; and then when he decided that what he wanted from their collection was some dusty, old icon or some odd statue or piece of furniture that was stored away in the mustiness of an attic or cellar, they couldn't believe — they were insulted. How could he pick this from their marvelous collections? But of course he was looking for the ancient, original items from the actual culture. They did admit, though, that later — when he took these to St. Petersburg and exhibited them in the palace, and when the catalogue of the collection came out and they discovered that what they had thought to be worthless rubbish from their cellars was now worth a considerable sum of money — they had more respect for Diaghilev's taste.

I gather that it's difficult for the orchestra? I mean, this is a tough piece to play, yes?

You know, it is — it used to be difficult. The thing is it's very gestural. There are reoccurring little rhythmic cells in the piece and once you get those — once you're able to see the large design of those that goes over many, many bars — maybe as over a whole page in some cases, they're swift and moving bars — you really get it into your bones. And young musicians today play this piece with terrifying ease — it's almost necessary to get them to bear down a bit and not kind of fly their way over all these rhythms, but to get to be more rooted, let it seem more powerful, more organic, more hardly strived for, perhaps.

Of course, Stravinsky himself, when he sang his own music or when he played it a little bit — but mostly sang it at the point that I knew him — there was a wonderful gesture to his singing and he had a kind of fractured solfege [sings], kind of hisses and noises that came between his teeth and kind of gravelly sound that came from the back of this throat. But even in the most abstract pieces, there was always that sense of the turnout of the phrase, the kind of choreographic twist of the phrase and that's really what he was after in The Rite of Spring. I don't think to him this music was brutal music; I think it was just music packed full of life and demanding elaborate and finely wrought execution.

You remark on, or I've heard you remark on, well there's a moment when there is, what is it, 11 consecutive drumbeats?


One of the great moments for bass drum players?

It's a great moment for bass drum and symphony, absolutely.

This is their star turn moment in the canon.

It's an extraordinary moment in music. It's an 11/4 bar; not too many of those had been seen previously. It's all just unison crunches and then it launches you into the wildest rhythmic music in the piece thus far: "The Glorification of the Chosen One," which is really a test for your musical mind and your sinews and muscles.

I'm just curious — you know, you talk about how Stravinsky would sing his music. It sounds like you could do a vocal representation of the entire Rite of Spring. I mean, you've conducted this enough.

Oh, of course!

As the music was continuing, people began to shout out comments from the audience. Like when they saw a group of maidens dancing in odd posture, they said, 'Somebody get her a dentist!'

You could, yeah?

Yeah, I think it's possible to sing your way straight through The Rite of Spring because it has very continuous, sinuous gestures. And between your singing and maybe a little help from some raps on the table, you could make it the whole way through.

You know, it's great fun to learn this piece, especially as I learned it — on the piano — as I played the four-hand version that Stravinsky had made for the rehearsals, long before I had worked on the orchestral version. And that four-hand version really gets it all into your body and what's nice about it is that you're playing all of the notes. In the orchestra, what's hard is — perhaps the hardest part for the orchestra is you have to rest. It's not so hard to play the notes you have to play, it's just that there are very odd pauses in between them and you have to be very good listening to the thread of the rhythm and you have to be just right in the placement of those notes — it's very tricky.

Well, the only other question I have is, I looked up some 1924 comments on this piece in the American press when Stravinsky was here, I guess, and it was being performed. And by that time, some people say this is great music, some people think it's a lot of banging. By what time is The Rite of Spring, do you think, by what time is it generally accepted as having been a really great piece of music?

Probably right around then — the '20s. By the '30s, people were taking Stravinsky to task for not writing stuff as great as what he had done when The Rite of Spring was written, and Stravinsky joked about that often that whatever he was doing now, people were complaining about and wished that he was doing what he had given up doing 10 or 15 years before.

But he had insatiable curiosity about words, about geography, about just things that he encountered in his day-to-day life and I think that curiosity also was extending into musical matters; he was never going to stay still, he was always going to move forward. And, of course, he realized how central this piece was for him and his life. The things he most appreciated perhaps were the "Danse Sacrale" and very much the beautiful harmony which is in the piece, and I think he liked the fact that over the years the piece had become less bangy and it was more possible to discern what beautiful notes he had actually written. And at the same time, he didn't want the piece to become deluxe. You remember he criticized Herbert von Karajan, saying that his performance of the piece sounded like driving through a jungle in an air-conditioned Mercedes with the windows rolled up.

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