A century after the first performance of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, debate is still open as to what it means, how it was made, why it matters and what exactly happened on the night of May 29, 1913. Like elements of any true ritual, the piece and its mythology renew themselves every time they are put in motion.
"The theatre seemed to be shaken by an earthquake," recalled one person in the audience for the premiere, referring not to the music but to the tumult of well-dressed people booing and shouting, so loudly that even the dancers had trouble hearing the massive orchestra. The police were called, the show struggled on, and the whole affair went straight into the history books.
We may never know for sure whether people threw punches or anything else when Stravinsky's music and Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography were first presented, because the eyewitnesses don't agree. What is certain is that the event, deservedly or not, has become a signpost of Western cultural history. Like Vincent van Gogh's failure to sell any of his paintings, it's one of those gratifying travesties of modern art history that allow us to feel superior to the shockable or genius-ignoring bourgeois of past generations.
The French critic Jacques Rivière said after the premiere that the Rite was "a wreckage of the past, crawling with and eaten away by familiar and monstrous forms of life." Two world wars later, it seemed more like the precursor of a monstrous future. Both Canadian historian Modris Eksteins (in his 1989 cultural study Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age) and dance scholar Lynn Garafola (in Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, from 1998) see the ballet as an anticipation of what Garafola calls "20th-century barbarism," ready to sacrifice its chosen victims by the million.
Stravinsky's score broke away long ago from any particular choreography, and to some extent from everything else in 20th-century music. Its percussive energy and grinding discords have a way of grabbing even those who are cold to other aggressively modern music. As the composer and critic Virgil Thomson said, the Rite fascinates because, paradoxically, it's "both deeply expressive and completely impersonal." Whatever dark realities the piece may convey, hearing or performing it has become an occasion, like getting through Beethoven's Ninth.
"It's a great piece, and every time I play it, I'm struck by its genius," says Cary Ebli, a member of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which releases a concert recording on its in-house TSO Live label next month. "It's so ingeniously set up."
The epicentre for this week's centenary revels is the place where it all began: the Théâtre de Champs-Élysées in Paris, which hosts a roundelay of Rite interpretations that includes a recreation of the original choreography performed with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGNbULNCiwQ); and Pina Bausch's version, part of which appears in Pina, Wim Wenders's recent documentary about the late Tanztheater Wuppertal director.
In Canada, Compagnie Marie Chouinard brings home to Montreal a touring dance version that has been seen about 250 times since 1993. Chouinard says she came to the Rite during a fast, when the music appeared to her with hallucinatory clarity. "It's not at all that I was looking for music," she says. "The music found me." She takes a biological view of the piece, "as if I were dealing with the very moment after the instant life first appeared."
Canadian composer John Oswald recently made a super-fast "robotic piano" version for Disklavier called spRite (at pfony.com), which forces the instrument to make errors wilder than anything in the score. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and Bramwell Tovey perform the piece at normal tempi at Vancouver's Orpheum on June 15 and 17.
Spring is a time of beginnings, and The Rite is a favourite curtain-opener in narratives fictional and not. Eksteins's book begins with it, and so does the 2009 film, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. Even the composer portrayed the score, years later, as a beginning with no precedent, saying: "Very little immediate tradition lies behind Le Sacre du Printemps … I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which the Sacre passed."
In fact, there's a strong thread of immediate tradition running through the piece, whose original subtitle was Pictures of Pagan Russia. The concept for its sacrificial pageant came from the same Romantic impulse that prompted many 19th-century composers to lace their works with folk tunes. Stravinsky sought guidance from a noted Russian ethnologist – Nicholas Roerich, who designed the original costumes – and cribbed tunes from a Lithuanian folk anthology.
But while other composers sweetened their rustic finds with suave orchestrations, Stravinsky roughed his up. He ran them against each other in dissonant repetitive layers, and let their irregular lengths forestall any consistent meter. Instead of evoking a picturesque past, his disruptive folk fragments provoked a structural upheaval aimed at the present. Stephen Malinowski, software guru for Bjork's Biophilia, recently completed an animation of the score (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02tkp6eeh40) that visualizes the insistent, unresolving strata that music analyst Pieter van den Toorn says can have "a static yet enormously tense" effect.
Stravinsky later promoted a more abstract view of the piece and tried to minimize its folk content, telling a biographer that only the opening bassoon melody had a folk source. Music scholars who scoured his notebooks found lots of contrary evidence, as well as a great deal of sketching and rewriting – not what you'd expect from a composer who claimed he was just a "vessel," pouring out what he heard. Stravinsky turned out to be a mostly unreliable witness to his own creation, saying at various times that the concept came first, or that the music did.
He also waged a life-long sniping campaign against Nijinsky, agreeing perhaps with those who believe that it was the choreographer's blunt movements, and not Stravinsky's music, that riled the ballet crowd that May night in 1913. A concert performance in Paris less than a year later was a huge, vindicating success.
Any bad blood between the collaborators is washed away in When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky, Lauren Stringer's new illustrated children's book about the Rite's creation and premiere. Composer and choreographer are like school chums who inspire each other, and touch off a lively, non-scandalous response. That's not quite what happened, but Stringer's book is certainly more informative about the piece than the most famous kids' version – the edited snippets used as soundtrack for a dinosaur fight in Disney's Fantasia. From Stravinsky's point of view, that was the Rite's most painful scandal. The other one, from that night 100 years ago, lingers around the piece like a never-fading badge of honour.