The Rite of Spring

[First published in WRTI Arts Desk, June 8, 2015.]

In June of 1912, Igor Stravinsky premiered the piano version of his daring new work The Rite of Spring, a year before its orchestral unveiling. His piano-playing partner was none other than Claude Debussy. Classical music has never been the same since the public first heard it.

 

DebussyStravinsky

Debussy, Stravinsky, 1910. Photo by Erik Satie

The reaction to the ballet was furious. It was so immediate, in fact, that the audience started to riot during the performance. Their response may have been caused by the purposely inelegant dancing or by arguing factions of music-lovers, but whatever the reason, shouting started during The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky at its 1913 premiere, and it turned the music world upside-down.

Its impact is even more remarkable when we consider that Stravinsky had already made a provocative name for himself with two previous ballets, Firebird and Petrushka. The opulent scoring of the first shows Stravinsky’s indebtedness to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, and the second reveals the savagery (open or barely-contained) that would be a hallmark of the Stravinsky style no matter what kind of music he wrote.

But even by his standards, the rambunctiousness and abandon of The Rite of Spring is over the top in the world of classical music. With dancing or without, the music leaves us breathless.

Puccini, an expert at expressing emotion himself, saw the second performance and said that Stravinsky’s music was “the work of a madman. The public hissed and laughed,” he said, but then he added, “and applauded.”

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