The Success of a Scandal:
The Premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps
November 27, 1991
Igor Stravinsky is one of the most influential composers in the twentieth century. Of all of Stravinsky's works, Le Sacre du Printemps, is the most influential. This work caused much controversy in the world of music and dance. It's premiere on Thursday evening, May 29, 1913, has been accepted as one of the turning points in the history of music and dance, 1 for it was on this day that Stravinsky's new ballet's premiere caused a respectable French audience to burst into a violent and unruly mob. 2 An ordeal such as this mob leaves one with many questions about the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps.
In trying to understand what happened during the premiere some historical background must be filled in. In 1909 the Russian Ballet, under the direction of Serge Pavlovich Diaghilev, had their first season at the Chatelet Theartre, Paris; which was a great success. 3 The next year the ballet company commissioned Stravinsky's first ballet, L'Oiseau de Feu. Before completing L'Oiseau de Feu in St. Petersburg, he was quoted as saying,
I had a fleeting vision, which came to me as a complete surprise, my mind at the moment being full of other things. I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to the god of spring. 4This spark then ignited the birth of Le Sacre.
L'Oiseau de Feu was premiered on June 25,1910, and it was an immediate success. 5 After the 1910 season Stravinsky took his family to Clarens in Switzerland, where he planned to start composing Le Sacre. 6 Before starting on Le Sacre, however, Stravinsky decided to work on a simpler piece. He wanted to compose an orchestral work where the piano played an important role. 7 This idea developed into another great ballet, Petrushka. This ballet premiered by the Russian ballet on June 13, 1911. The Parisian audience loved it instantly and critics were not far behind. 8
After his second success, Stravinsky went to Oustiloug, his estate in Russia, where he started to work on Le Sacre. 9 Once at home, Stravinsky needed to come up with a plan of action for Le Sacre. He went to see Nicholas Roerich, a painter who specialized in pagan subjects. 10 After two days with Roerich, Stravinsky had his plan for Le Sacre. Stravinsky was in such a hurry to get home that he took a freight train and ended up sharing a car with a bull. 11
Once back at Oustiloug, Stravinsky immediately started to compose Le Sacre. He used Russian folk songs that he had been collecting since 1910. 12 These songs gave the work a very Russian sound.
By the spring of 1912, Stravinsky completed the first part and was half way through the second when he learned some upsetting news: Diaghilev had decided to postpone the premiere until the 1913 season. 13
The reason for this delay is that Michel Fokine, the main choreographer for the Russian ballet, began to have strained relations with Diaghilev in 1911. Fokine had been with the ballet company from the start and became quite famous through his choreography of the company's greatest ballets.
He left the ballet in June 1912, so Diaghilev turned to Vaslav Nijinsky, his greatest dancer. Diaghilev wanted to transform Nijinsky into a great choreographer; this switch would be a turning point for the Russian ballet. 14
Nijinsky's first appearance as choreographer was on Debussy's L' Apres-Midi d'un Faune in 1912. This performance caused a scandal because of the erotic dancing by Nijinsky at the end of the ballet. 15 With these escapades the stage was set for the next season and the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps.
At the beginning of 1913 season, the Russian ballet had a decline in popularity with the Parisians. 16 They were not happy with the loss of Fokine, whom they loved. Diaghilev was still trying to make a choreographer of Nijinsky and had him choreograph Debussy's Jeux and Le Sacre. 17 Stravinsky who thought highly of Nijinsky's dancing became quite upset with his choreography. 18 Stravinsky had this to say about his abilities as a choreographer:
Nijinsky began by demanding such a fantastic number of rehearsals that it was physically impossible to give them to him. It will not be difficult to understand why he wanted so many, when I say that in trying to explain to him the construction of my work in general outline and in detail I discovered that I should achieve nothing until I had taught him the very rudiments of music...It was exasperating and we advanced at a snail's pace. It was all the more trying because Nijinsky complicated and encumbered his dances beyond all reason, thus creating difficulties for the dancers that were sometimes impossible to overcome. This was due as much to his lack of experience as to the complexity of a task with which he was unfamiliar. 19Stravinsky was very nervous because of the problems; and he traveled with the ballet company so he could be at all of the rehearsals. 20
Despite all the problems of the difficult musical score and choreography, the Russian ballet was ready to premiere Le Sacre. On May 28, the dress rehearsal, the ballet company invited a number of actors, painters, musicians, writers and critics to view the ballet. Everything went so fine, no one had any idea of what was to happen the next day. 21
On an unusually hot Thursday evening, the performance by the Russian ballet started at 8:45 PM as always. 22 The first ballet of the night was Les Sylphides, which was a favorite of Parisians. 23 Than came the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps. From the first notes there were problems: laughter and catcalls came from the audience during the introduction. 24 This unbelievable event has been described by different people who were there.
According to Carl van Vechten,'a certain part of the audience was thrilled by what it considered to be a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art, and swept away with wrath, began very soon after the rise of the curtain, to make catcalls and offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed. The orchestra played unheard, except occasionally when a slight lull occurred. The young man seated behind me in the box stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was laboring betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for sometime! Romola Pulsky (later Nijinsky's wife), who was in the auditorium during the first part of the ballet, describes how 'people whistled, insulted the performers and the composer, shouted, laughed. Monteux [the conductor] threw desperate glances towards Diaghilev, who sat in Astruc's box and made signs to him to keep playing. Astruc [the director of the Theater] in this indescribable noise ordered the lights to be turned on, and the fights and controversy did not remain in the domain of sound, but actually culminated in bodily conflict. One beautifully dressed lady in an orchestra box stood up and slapped the face of a young man who was hissing in the next box. Her escort arose and cards were exchanged between the men. A duel followed the next day.' 25Stravinsky became so disgusted when the audience laughed during the introduction, that he went back stage. Back stage he found Nijinsky shouting numbers at the dancers, for they could not hear the orchestra. Stravinsky said he had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes, because he was so upset that Stravinsky thought he might run out on stage and create a scandal. 26 During intermission, Astruc asked the audience to remain quite during the second half. He offered to reimburse tickets if they would be silent; no one took the offer. 27
The only moment where the audience stopped and paid attention was during solo dance of the chosen virgin. The scene was set as such:
The motionless figure of Marie Piltz (the dancer who played the chosen virgin) was seen to be seized by a growing paroxysm of trembling, there were catcalls from the gallery but as the movement progressed and Marie Piltz was galvanized into tense, angular convulsions by the tortured rhythm of the music the dance of the doomed victim was seen to have such indescribable force and beauty that in its conviction of sacrifice it disarmed even the chaotic audience. They forgot to fight. 28At the end of all this chaos there were four or five curtain calls, in which one side gave applause and the other its disapproval. 29 That night was so exhausting that Stravinsky became ill shortly afterwards and never saw the other performances of Le Sacre. 30
It is hard to believe that such an event could happen when the Russian ballet premiered so many successful new works. There are many different theories on why the riot took place. One such theory is that Stravinsky's music was so violent and different to the audience that it caused the outburst. 31 Stravinsky used dissonance and irregular music shapes, of a brief nature, and strung them together to create an enormous amount of energy. 32 Stravinsky also used new orchestration techniques, such as the high bassoon in the introduction, and the use of alto flute. 33 All these new sounds and rhythms were said by some to be the destruction of music as art. 34
Another theory is that the music was too Russian for the French people.
At the time the French were not very happy with the Russians, and that is why comments like "They are ripe for colonization!" were said at the premiere. 35
To play music with such a Russian sound and concept that Le Sacre has really helped to pronounce this difference. All the Russian folk melodies throughout the work really help to a produce this Russian sound. The violence of the coming of spring is also a concept belonging to cold weather countries. 36 Stravinsky said, "the violent Russian Spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking." 37 This image of a violent spring was so foreign to the French people that they had a hard time accepting it, thus causing the riot.
Not all the theories say that it was the music that caused the riot; some say it was Nijinsky's choreography. 38 Nijinsky already caused a small scandal with his choreography for L'Apres-midi d'un Faune. Stravinsky said this comment in retrospect about Nijinsky's choreography:
what struck me then, and still strikes me most, about the choreography, was and is Nijinsky's lack of consciousness of what he was doing in creating it. He showed this in his complete inability to accept and assimilate those revolutionary ideas, which Diaghilev had made his creed, and obstinately and industriously strove to inculcate. What the choreography expressed realization flowing and naturally from what the music demand. How far it all was from what I had desired! 39The choreography was different from what the audience was used to from earlier ballets that were choreographed by Fokine. This difference is another possible cause of the riot.
The theory that is the strongest is that Diaghilev planned it to raise interest in the Russian ballet. The ballet companys popularity was on a decline and the riot certainly put the Russian ballet in the headlines. It would not be the first time that Diaghilev would be blamed for trying such a stunt. It has been said that he encouraged the scandal that happened during L'Apres-midi d'un Faune. 40 After the premiere of Le Sacre Stravinsky said:Diaghilev's only comment was, Exactly what I wanted.' He certainly looked contented. No one could have been quicker to understand the publicity value, and he immediately understood the good thing that had happened in that respect. Quite probably he had already thought about the possibility of such a scandal when I first played him the score, months before, in the east corner ground room of the Grand Hotel in Venice. 41It is hard to believe that it was the music or the choreography that caused the scandal, when the dress rehearsal went off smoothly. The fact that no one would leave at intermission, accepting the refund, makes one think they planned on making noise the whole time. If the scandal was planned by Diaghilev to gain publicity, it worked well. The Russian ballet and Le Sacre du Printemps has gone down in history as being so innovative that they caused a riot.
Although many questions about the scandal on May 29, 1913, remain unanswered, Le Sacre du Printemps rose to become very popular. In April 1914,in Paris, Le Sacre was performed for the first time as a concert piece. Monteux was again the conductor and the filled hall was silent until the end when they applauded enthusiastically. This sign of appreciation moved Stravinsky greatly. 42 Ever since then, Le Sacre has been a classic and it has influenced many composers, changing the course of history forever.
1 Truman C. Bullard, The First Performance of Igor Stravinsky's Sacre Du Printemps, Vol. I (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1971), p.iii. There is a conflicting date in Stravinsky's autobiography (p. 46), which says the premiere was on May 28; but May 29 was confirmed in these books:
Eric Walter White, Stravinsky: A Critical Survey, (New York: Philosophical Library, 1948), p. 42
Francois Lesure ed., Anthology of Musical Criticism: Igor Stravinsky Le Scare Du Printemps, (Geneve: Dossier de Presse, 1980), p. 7.
2 Bullard, p. iii.
3 White, p. 28.
4 Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography, (New York: M. & J. Steuer, 1936), p. 31.
5 White, p. 28.
6 White, p. 30.
7 Stravinsky, p. 31.
8 White, p. 35.
9 Stravinsky, p. 35. White spells Stravinsky's home like Ustilug (p. 37), since it was Stravinsky's home, his spelling is being used.
10 Stravinsky, p. 31.
11 White, p. 38.
12 Stephen Walsh, The Music of Stravnisky, (London: Routledge,1988), pp. 34, 42.
13 White, p. 39.
14 Bullard, pp. 14,15.
15 White, pp. 41,42.
16 Jacques Riviere, "Le Sacre du Printemps'" La Nouvelle Revue Francaise, (Aug. 1, 1913), 309-313. Translation in:
Truman Bullard, De First Performance of Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, Vol.II (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1971), p. 218.
17 Stravinsky, p. 41.
18 Stravinsky, p. 34.
19 Stravinsky, p. 41.
20 Stravinsky, p. 41.
21 Stravinsky, p. 47.
22 Bullard, p. 138.
23 Bullard, p. 138.
24 White, p. 43.
25 White, p. 43.
26 Stravinsky, p. 47.
27 Bullard, pp. 149, 150.
28 White, p. 44.
29 Gustave Linor, "Au Theatre des Champs-Elysees: Le Sacre du Printemps," Comoedia, VII/2067, (May 30, 1913). Translation in: Bullard, Vol. II p. 29.
30 Stravinsky, p. 49.
31 Bullard, p. vi.
32 Walsh, p. 44.
33 Walsh, p. 51.
34 White, p. 43.
35 "La Premiere du Sacre du Printemps par Ie Ballet Russe au Theatre des Champs-Elysees," Comoedia Illustre Supplement Artistique, V/17, (June 5, 1913), [papes unnumbered]. II, p. 108. Translation in: Bullard, Vol. II, p. 108.
36 Walsh, p. 41.
37 Walsh, p. 41.
38 Bullard, p. vi.
39 Steavinsky, p. 47.
40 Bullard, pp. 19-21.
41 Igor Stravinsky, and Robert Craft, Conversations with Igor Stravinsky,(New York: Doubleday, 1959), p. 48.
42 Stravinsky, p. 52.
Bullard, Truman C. The First Performance of Igor Stravinsky's Sacre Du Printemps. 3 vols. Ann Arbor:
University Microfilms International, 1971.
Lesure, Francois ed. Anthology of Musical Criticism: Igor Stravinsky Le Sacre Du Printemps.
Geneve: Dossier de Presse, 1980.
Linor, Gustave. "Au Theatre des Champs-Elysees: Le Sacre du Printemps." Comoedia VII/2067
May 30, 1913: 3.
Riviere, Jacques. "Le Sacre du Printemps," La Nouvelle Revue Francaise. August 1, 1913: 309-313.
Stravinsky, Igor. An Autobiography. New York: M. & J. Steuer, 1936.
Stravinsky, Igor, and Robert Craft. Conversions with Igor Stravinsky. New York: Doubleday, 1959.
Walsh, Stephen. The Music of Stravinsky. New York: Routledge, 1988.
White, Eric Walter. Stravinsky: A Critical Survey. New York: Philosophical Library, 1948.
"La Premiere du Sacre du Printemps par Ie Ballet Russe au Theatre des Champs-Elysees,"
Comoedia Illustre. Supplement Artistique V/17 June 5, 1913 [pages unnumbered].
Copyrighted by Michael Cooke, 2003.