July 11, 2013 | by James S. Murphy
Six weeks ago, the world celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the premiere of Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) on May 29, 1913, and of the legendary riot that accompanied it. It was the culmination of an ongoing celebration. In the past year, orchestras around the globe performed the piece. Carolina Performing Arts sponsored a symposium featuring leading scholars, a puppetry performance by Basil Twist, and a new reinterpretation of Nijinsky and Stravinsky’s ballet, called A Rite, by Anne Bogart and Bill T. Jones. Mark Morris, too, leapt onto the reboot bandwagon with Spring Spring Spring, danced to a musical reinterpretation of Stravinsky by the jazz group the Bad Plus. So, too, did the German choreographer Sasha Waltz, with her new ballet, performed on May 29 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, the very theater in which the original premiered. Indubitably great as Stravinsky’s composition was, there is no doubt that much of the work’s fame and the desire to mark its anniversary rest on the riot. The Rite may have created a riot, but it was the myth of the riot that made The Rite and much attention has been spent in recent months on determining just what the source of the riot was.
If we really want to understand that watershed moment, however, we might do better to recall a different anniversary. A hundred years ago today, on July 11, 1913, the ballet was performed for the first time in London. After the tumult in Paris, what must have happened in the conservative, even staid, cultural climate of England? France, after all, had spawned Baudelaire, the Moulin Rouge, and Ubu Roi. London had sired Tennyson, the pantomime, and H.M.S. Pinafore. If worldly Parisians had rioted, surely parochial Londoners must have rampaged.
Only they did not. When the Times of London reviewed the British premier, it declared in the first sentence, “London takes both its pleasures and its pains more quietly than Paris.” The review notes that “the applause was measured, but so were the cries of disapproval.” The Rite went off without any major incident, as it had done in the four subsequent performances in Paris after the premiere. This is worth remembering, particularly since the anniversary has provided the occasion for several critics to indulge a nostalgia for the good old days of repression, when art could still shock. An essay in the New York Times this year by the eminent Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin captured this consternation perfectly in its headline: “Shocker Cools into a Rite of Passage.” While several people have pointed to Walt Disney’s cooptation of Stravinsky’s music for Fantasia in 1940 as the moment when the work officially lost its edge, reports on the subsequent performances in Paris and the reviews of the London premiere show that it did not take three decades—or even three years—for audiences to see past the shock and find the beauty in The Rite. It took a few weeks.
That is not to say that the riot did not matter. Cultural institutions and critics have lined up across the county to celebrate The Rite in no small part because of it. The riot turned the work into a symbol of all that modernist art was supposed to be: a break with tradition and a thumb in the eye of bourgeois taste. Yet for quite some time scholars have called into question the size, the ferocity, and the immediate effects of what definitely was a disturbance on opening night. Did old women hit bohemians with their parasols? Perhaps. Did Stravinsky leave his seat in the theater out of fear? Perhaps, but only to watch backstage. And he did manage to appear for four or five curtain calls at the evening’s end—a detail not often marked in accounts of the riot? Did Nijinsky have to stand in the wings counting out the time to the dancers, in order to overcome the noise that drowned out the orchestra? Yes, he counted, but not to combat the noise. He had counted out the time to the dancers all week, most likely because they had not figured it out themselves yet. Did the American writer and future sponsor of the Harlem Renaissance, Carl Van Vechten, actually see forty people forcibly expelled from the premiere as he reported? Almost certainly not, since he attended only the second performance. Did the police come at all? It is unclear.
But the extent to which this disturbance counts as a riot really is beside the point, as is the question of what actually happened that night. What matters most is that whatever it was, it never happened again. Not once. Some small disturbances were reported at the second performance four days later, but nothing of note occurred at the final two performances of the ballet in Paris. A report on the third performance in London speculated that the English audience “is either surprisingly quick or surprisingly careless in accommodating ourselves to new forms of art. The first performance of [The Rite] evoked something like a hostile demonstration from a section of the audience. The third and last performance was received with scarcely a sign of opposition.”
That the scandal of France could be accommodated so quickly by an English audience bewildered the reviewer and has continues to bedevil many lovers of the work. How could a work so radical, so offensive, so shocking become accepted at all by a large audience, especially so quickly? In the New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler used the Rite anniversary as an occasion to investigate the decline of art’s power to shock. She blamed modernism itself—“decades of Modernist assaults on formal constraints have dissolved the boundary between art and not-art, high and low”—and the ascendency of marketing over substance. “Today shock can seem indistinguishable from scandal, less a side effect of artistic innovation than a ploy ginned up by self-promoting artists and public scolds.” Schuessler’s remark is perfectly accurate but for one word: “today.” There is nothing particularly contemporary about the phenomena of publicity triumphing over aesthetics.
Indeed, the director of the Ballet Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, was a master marketer. Weeks before the company’s annual season in Paris began, he and Stravinsky made several remarks to the press, promising the world a new and true kind of art. Critics were invited to a preview the day before to insure that the audience was not just primed but provoked. On the day of the premiere, one critic wrote, “The public is beginning to realize that it is being made fun of, and it is protesting,” almost as if he had a crystal ball revealing what would happen that very evening. The point, however, is that he did not need one to realize that Diaghilev wanted a scandal and had worked hard to insure one.
The Rite of Spring was many things, but it was not a shock. As several reports from the time corroborate, the audience came ready to riot. Three days after the premiere, a critic in the journal Comoedia tried to explain why the riot took place. “Some people,” he wrote, “summoned … to a few final rehearsals [of The Rite] went about in Paris wildly, convinced that they needed to do so. They were of 2 kinds [the convinced and the skeptics], equally wild and convinced.” The convinced announced, “We are going to be present at the great musical revolution. It is tonight that the symphony of the future is defined.” The skeptics, on the other hand, warned, “Be careful. They are just going to make fun of our ears. They take us for fools. We must defend ourselves.” The result of this preparation: “The curtain goes up—no, even before it goes up—there is murmuring, cries of ‘Oh!’… they hiss, they whistle.” In other words, it was perfectly clear at the time, at least to this commentator, that the riot was predetermined, more by social positions than by the formal qualities of the work itself. As the NRA might put it, art doesn’t cause riots, people do.
James S. Murphy is a freelance writer who received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and formerly taught at Harvard University. He is working on a book entitled The Way We Like Now: Aesthetics in the Age of Algorithms.