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May 29, 2024 8 mins

On this day in 1913, Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” made its inauspicious debut at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. 

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
This Day in History Class is a production of iHeartRadio.
Hello and welcome to This Day in History Class, a
show that sings the high and the low notes of
everyday history. I'm Gabe Lusier, and today we're talking about
one of the most infamous disturbances in classical music history,

(00:22):
the time when a new ballet triggered an audience revolt
in a Paris theater. The day was May twenty ninth,
nineteen thirteen. Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Right of Spring made
its inauspicious debut at the Theatra des Champs Elici in Paris.

(00:46):
The piece, known in French as Le Sacre du Printon,
is now regarded as one of the most pioneering and
influential ballets of the twentieth century. But because it was
such a radical departure from traditional ballet, especially in its choreography,
the Parisians at the premiere gave it a chile and

(01:07):
in some cases, violent reception. Originally titled The Victim, the
ballet centers on a pagan celebration of spring and culminates
with the human sacrifice of a virgin girl known as
the Chosen One, who dances herself to death in the
show's climax. It was the third major project from Russian

(01:27):
born composer Igor Stravinsky, following his highly acclaimed Firebird in
nineteen ten and Petrushka in nineteen eleven. All three productions
were mounted with the support of Russian impresario Sergei Diagilev,
who had brought Stravinsky to Paris to work with his
all Russian ballet company, the Ballet Rous. With the Right

(01:50):
of Spring, Stravinsky continued his career long push to break
from the conventions of the day and explore new musical territory.
But while other composers of the era can find their
experimentation to concert halls and opera houses, Stravinsky dared to
bring challenging music into the traditionally conservative realm of ballet.

(02:13):
In place of the elegant, harmonious music that audiences were
used to in works like Swan Lake, Stravinsky's Right delivered
dissonant notes, complex harmonies, and atonal melodies, along with plenty
of percussion. To compliment this somewhat jarring approach to the medium,
Sergei Diagiliv recruited the famous dancer Vaslov Nazinsky to handle

(02:38):
the choreography revolutionary in his own right. Nazinsky drew inspiration
from ancient Egyptian wall paintings, two dimensional depictions of humans,
in which the subject's face, waste, and limbs appear in profile,
but their eye and shoulders are shown facing frontally. Nazinsky
sought to capture this unusual set style by having the

(03:01):
ballerinas keep their feet flat in their knees straight during jumps.
This led to great discomfort on their part and resulted
in movements that looked clunky and awkward compared to the smooth,
graceful steps of classical ballet. Nazinski's bold decisions raised some
concerns during rehearsals, but the show moved forward regardless, with

(03:23):
the ballet's premiere taking place on May twenty ninth, nineteen thirteen.
Here's a taste of what they heard that night. The

(03:51):
audience backlash was almost immediate. Pretty soon, the uproar was
so loud that the dancers couldn't hear the music, prompting
Nazinsky to stand on a chair backstage and call out
dance steps just to keep things moving. Diagilev tried to
restore order by frantically turning the house lights off and on,

(04:12):
but it was no use. Arguments broke out amongst the crowd,
with some denouncing Stravinsky's work and others rising to defend it.
These shouting matches devolved into violence before long, as the
well dressed patrons laid into each other with canes, umbrellas,
and even with their bare fists. Taken on its own,

(04:34):
the ballet's music likely wouldn't have provoked such a vicious
response from the audience, but when paired with the jagged,
unnatural movements of Nazinsky's choreography, many in attendance felt like
they were being mocked. The spectators couldn't even take solace
in the dancer's costumes, as there were no ballerinas in
Tutus to be seen. Instead, the dancers wore rough tunics

(04:57):
and stylized masks to better evoke the pagan tribesmen they
were portraying. All of this together created the sense among
traditionalists that what they were watching wasn't actually ballet as
they knew it, but an ugly parody of the form.
The crowd was so incensed by this unwelcome subversion that
the police had to be called in to calm things down.

(05:20):
At intermission, forty of the most unruly patrons were kicked
out of the theater, and the stage manager made a
desperate plea for civility. During the show's second half, these
efforts seemed to pay off, and the production was allowed
to continue without interruption. There were even curtain calls for
the dancers, as well as for Stravinsky and even Nazinski.

(05:43):
The show continued for the next several nights, and while
the crowds were never all that receptive to the performance,
they at least weren't as openly hostile as those at
the premiere. For his part, Stravinsky sat out those shows,
as he contracted typhoid fever portly after opening night and
was too sick to make it to the theater. He

(06:04):
got to read all about it in the press, though,
and as you might expect, the ballet was almost universally
panned by critics. Thankfully, the negativity surrounding The Right of
Spring was short lived. The following year, the piece was
performed again in Paris, this time as an orchestral work
without the dancers. In that more open minded setting, the

(06:27):
Right finally found its audience. In fact, the show went
over so well that the cheering spectators were said to
have hoisted the composer up on their shoulders in Triumph.
Six years after that dramatic reappraisal, the ballet Rousse took
another crack at the Right with new choreography and costumes,
and that too proved successful. By the nineteen twenties, Stravinsky's

(06:51):
Right of Spring was being performed all over Europe as
well as in the United States, and from that point
on it was widely embraced as one of the great
musical works of the twentieth century. In fact, the music
became so mainstream that in nineteen forty Walt Disney used
it for the dinosaur sequence in the animated feature film Fantasia.

(07:14):
It's strange to think that the same music that nearly
incited Ariot in Paris was used to score a Disney
movie less than three decades later, but that just goes
to show you how ahead of the curve Stravinsky and
his collaborators really were. Their bold work made dissonant music
more palatable to a general audience, and the musical world

(07:36):
today is that much richer for their daring. I'm Gabe
blues Gay and hopefully you now know a little more
about history today than you did yesterday. If you'd like
to keep up with the show, you can follow us
on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at TDI HC Show, and

(07:57):
if you have any comments or suggestions, feel free to
send them my way by writing to This Day at
iHeartMedia dot com. Thanks to Casby Bias for producing the show,
and thanks to you for listening. I'll see you back
here again tomorrow for another day in History class.

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