So, I’ve been delving into a lot more classical music lately. I was raised on classical music, but apart from some Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (The Four Seasons is a sort of musical comfort food to me, I remember listening to it in the car as a little girl, from the back seat, and I would gaze out the window and tone out all of the conversation in the car and pretend that I was somewhere else), I haven’t felt a lot of interest in it, maybe because a lot of it is so overused in soundtracks and car commercials that it starts to sound like some kind of horrible background music for commerce.
But since discovering some new information about Beethoven’s racial heritage, and since discovering that his music, as played in the modern day, was probably not presented in the way that the composer intended it to be played (Beethoven’s originally noted time signatures were so absurdly fast and so difficult to play that modern conductors assume that his metronome was broken; the music sounds quite differently played according to the original notations; if you can find some, you should check it out), I’ve developed a new interest in classical music. Beethoven can’t be the only remarkable thing that was whitewashed and tamed.
Today I came across a piece that was neither hidden nor lost; that is indeed among classical music’s most recorded, but which bears mentioning regardless… Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
If you haven’t heard it, I suggest you listen to at least some of it.
The Rite of Spring was an orchestral piece with a dance performance that was premiered in 1913. It was written by a young and still relatively unknown Igor Stravinsky, was the score for the last of three ballets. It, and the ballet performance that it accompanied, were created to capture the spirit of celebrations of spring in (at that point long gone) pagan Russia. Stravinsky attempted to capture the primitive feeling and the impression of untrained voices by using dissonance, atonalities, and bitonalities. In some cases, he stretched certain instruments to the very ends of their range, rendering them unrecognizable even to the ears of professionals. The work is structured in a way that, along with the dissonance and odd tones, keeps the listener off-balance; it’s shattered into musical fragments, each of which repeats and can be related to multiple other pieces. The tempo changes frequently and without warning, and the driving repetitiveness of it is something that may have been at home in a prehistoric vernal ritual, but undoubtedly sounded strange to those at the time.
It’s impossible for me to listen to this with anything other than a modern ear, which is a shame. The Rite is regarded as one of the most influential pieces of music in the modern day, and it’s easy to see why. A lot of what you hear going on is reminiscent of modern day dramatic or cinematic instrumental music. In fact, the Rite has been said to be the earliest rock and roll… I personally find this to be a bit classist and anglocentric as it disregards the essential role of Western European folk music traditions and the not inconsiderable influence of African and African American musical traditions on modern rock music, but I can see how the comparison could be made. I will say that in many places in the piece, it still sounds eerie and disconcerting, and it must have sounded deranged to the average ballet-goer of the early nineteen hundreds.
But let’s not forget the ballet portion. The music was accompanied by dancers, of course, and this also was odd for the time. Rather than revealing and form-fitting outfits as were common in ballet at the time (and still are; they highlight the inherent grace of the human form, which is the main purpose of ballet), these dancers wore long tunics and padded, laced leggings. In fact, the dancers’ forms were obscured more or less from head to toe, regardless of gender. The dancers’ hair, instead of being neatly pinned and tucked, was worn in long, heavy braids.
The choreography, by Vasilav Nijinsky, was equally puzzling to audiences at the time. Many portions of the ballet involved the dancers using awkward, jerking motions and heavy leaps that shook the floors. Nijinsky required that his dancers dance toe-in, making the movements even more awkward by nature. You can see the ballet here with what are purported to be Nijinsky’s original choreography, though evidently the dance itself was lost over the years and just recently reconstructed from the performers accounts and from documentation of the performance, so who knows… but it’s probably pretty darn close. You can see how the movements would be thought to evoke the feeling of prehistory, of an unsophisticated people leaping around a bonfire. In fact, it seems very close to a lot of modern dance of the current day. Another aspect that, while it may not seem as strange to modern eyes, likely looked bizarre to the point of incompetence to ballet-goers of the time.
The Rite only ran for six performances in its original run. It’s premiere was so scandalous, that it almost resulted in a riot. Evidently the derisive laughter began during the introduction, and grew to a clamor shortly after. The audience shouted and hissed, and threw objects at the orchestra as they performed. It’s said that the crowd was so loud that it became impossible to hear the music. The orchestra played on; they had been ordered to keep playing, no matter what happened… they had been ordered to by the ballet master Sergei Diaghilev, which indicates that he had anticipated such a reaction. Audience member Thomas Kelly was quoted as having said, regarding the premier, “the pagans onstage made pagans of the audience.”
Those last two items bear consideration. One, the ballet master anticipated a reaction so intensely negative that in order to calm the audience, the police had to be called and the house lights brought up. And two, what better response could one receive to a piece intended to evoke prehistoric pagan ritual, than to see the audience reduced themselves to barbarity? (A note on the use of the word “pagan” as a pejorative; in this piece of writing it is used thus due to the fact that pagans were viewed at the time with disdain as uneducated barbarians, and this use does not necessarily reflect the feeling or intent of the writer.)
My point in writing this is that the Rite of Spring nearly caused a riot, but was also one of the most influential pieces of music in the modern day. This indicates that the music and the dancing were both so far ahead of their time that even the rather avant-garde audience in attendance reacted with outrage. Diaghilev had the courage to ensure that the performance continued, regardless of this reaction… which history indicates he anticipated. The lesson here is, for those who pursue the creative arts, that we must not shrink from the possibility of strong critical reaction; in fact, to be truly great, we should court it.
Art is an evolving narrative. If it weren’t, we’d only need a handful of pieces of art to rely upon. We must always strive to add new ideas and new voices to that conversation. That the reaction may be one of fear or of anger should spur us onward, because cultural changes are often greeted with these feelings. Rather than this being a sign that we have failed, it is a sign that we are continuing to succeed.
In short, my friends, never be afraid that you might start a riot.
That, after all, is why we’re here.
As you read any of this, it’s vital to keep in mind that I, the humble writer, know very little about music and next to nothing about classical music, so you know. Most of this is probably bullshit.