Stravinsky Causes a Riot

History books are traditionally divided into chapters that attempt to compartmentalize the ebb and flow of historical change. In most cases, however, historical change is not orderly and well-defined. History is not always marked by clear beginnings and endings. Even so, now and then, a single event turns everything upside down and transforms a society — the attack on the Bastille in 1789, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, the stock market crash in 1929. Those events clearly marked new “chapters” in human history.

Music history — like political and economic history — also has its earth-shattering moments, the moments when everything changes. Monteverdi’s
L’Orfeo (1607) changed European music forever, as did Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (1805) and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1865). All three of those works shook the foundations of music and made it difficult for composers to continue using the traditional rules of composition that had preceded them. Another such moment in music history came on May 29, 1913, when The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

theatre_champs_elysees_35
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

The first performance of The Rite of Spring caused such an uproar that most accounts of the audience’s reaction referred to it as a “riot.” Even though the ballet’s unusual choreography may have had as much to do with causing a commotion as the music, we cannot avoid describing The Rite of Spring as one of the most significant and influential pieces of music ever composed.

The Rite of Spring was the third ballet by Stravinsky for the Ballets Russes. Sergei Diaghilev, a Russian art critic and entrepreneur, created the Ballets Russes in 1909 when he brought Russian ballet dancers to Paris. Employing the finest dancers in the world, Diaghilev gained much fame combining music, scenery, costumes, acting, and drama into what Richard Wagner had once described as “Artwork of the Future.”

During the first season of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev produced performances of classic ballets with music by Chopin and Rimsky-Korsakov. During the second season, however, Diaghilev scheduled performances with new music. The first ballet commissioned by Diaghilev with new music was
The Firebird by Stravinsky. At the time, Stravinsky was an unknown Russian composer, a former pupil of the great Rimsky-Korsakov.

The Firebird, which premiered in June 1910, became a hit, leading Diaghilev to commission another ballet from Stravinsky. That ballet, titled Petrushka, made Stravinsky an international star and Diaghilev asked Stravinsky for a third ballet — The Rite of Spring. At its premiere the audience was full of aristocrats and celebrities, and Paris was primed for a major social event. Little did the audience know they were about to make history by witnessing an event that would scandalize Paris and revolutionize the language of music.

The Rite of Spring paints a picture of a primitive and pagan world, a version of primeval human beings paying tribute to nature with rituals related to spring. During the ballet, a young virgin is selected for sacrifice and then dances herself to death.

Parisian painters had already been influenced by primitive art and had created a new artistic style known as Fauvism. “Fauvists” (or “Brutes”) painted with wild brush strikes and jarring colors.
The Rite of Spring might be described in the same terms. The combination of modernist music and dancing went far beyond what some members of the audience at the premier performance were willing to accept.

Carl Van Vechten, an American writer and photographer, attended the premier and later describe the chaos in his book
Music After the War.

“A certain part of the audience, 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 whistle, to make catcalls, and to offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed. Others of us who liked the music and felt that the principles of free speech were at stake bellowed defiance. The orchestra played on unheard, except occasionally when a slight lull occurred. The figures on the stage danced in time to music that they had to imagine they heard, and beautifully out of rhythm with the uproar in the auditorium. I was sitting in a box in which I had rented one seat. Three ladies sat in front of me, one young man occupied the place behind me. He stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was laboring, thanks to the potent force of the music, 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 some time. They were perfectly synchronized with the music.”

In addition to Van Vecthen’s description, other well-known stories from that evening illustrate the controversial nature of the ballet.

  • A woman who was enjoying the performance stood up and spat in the face of a man who didn't like the music.
  • Another woman who was also enjoying the performance was seated in a theater box . When a boo bird in the box next to her got on her nerves she reached into his box and slapped his face. Her escort then challenged the boo bird to a duel.
  • The Princesse de Pourtalès walked out of the theater exclaiming, “I am sixty years old, but this is the first time that anyone dared to make a fool of me!”
  • The ambassador from Austria sneered and laughed out loud.
  • Music critic André Capu screamed that the music was a fraud.
  • Composer and music critic Alexis Roland-Manuel loudly defended the music, causing a protestor to tear the collar from his shirt.
  • Police came to the theater in large numbers and arrested over 40 people.
The well-known people at the performance included Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. Ravel shouted the word “genius” during the performance. Debussy pleaded with those around him to be silent and listen to the music. Meanwhile Vaslav Nijinsky, the choreographer, tried to jump into the audience to fight the protestors. Stravinsky held Nijinsky backstage to keep him from getting into a fistfight. The crowd's noise also prompted Nijinsky to stand on a chair shouting directions to his dancers as Stravinsky held his coattails.

Byron Hollinshead has edited a pair of books titled
I Wish I'd Been There in which distinguished historians answer the question, “What scene or incident in history would you most liked to have witnessed? Although I can think of several historical events I would like to have witnessed, the premier performance of The Rite of Spring would be near the top of my list.

If I had been at that performance, I would have wanted to attend as neutral observer, someone who was not taking sides. I would have wanted to watch that performance knowing what we know over 100 years later, fully cognizant of how much Stravinsky’s music was changing everything that came after. I wish I'd been there to see what it looks like when the world is shaken to its core and everything begins moving in a different direction.

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Music Outline for
The Rite of Spring (LeSacre du Pintemps)

The two animated scores embedded below are among the best I have seen. The animations come from Stephen Malinowski and Jay Bacal at
Music Animation Machine. I find their work on The Rite of Spring riveting and thrilling. NPR called them "mind blowing."

Recording rendered by Jay Bacal using virtual instrument software from Vienna Symphonic Library


Part One: Adoration of the Earth

0:06 | 1. Introduction

3:18 | 2. Augurs of Spring (Dance of the Adolescents): The celebration of spring begins in the hills. Pipers play music and young men tell fortunes.

6:26 | 3. Game of the Abduction: An old woman enters. She knows the mystery of nature and begins to predict the future. Young girls with painted faces come in from the river in single file and begin the spring dance.

7:48 | 4. Spring Rounds: The young girls dance the “Spring Rounds.”

11:22 | 5. Games of the Rival Tribes: The people divide into two groups opposing each other and begin the “Games of the Rival Tribes.”

13:08 | 6. Entrance of the Wise Man: The holy procession enters with the wise elders led by the Wise Man.

13:48 | 7. The Wise Man: The Wise Man interrupts the spring games and the people tremble as the he blesses the earth.

14:09 | 8. Dance to the Earth: The people dance passionately and become one with the earth.

Recording rendered by Jay Bacal using virtual instrument software from Vienna Symphonic Library


Part Two: The Sacrifice

0:15 | 9. Introduction

4:54 | 10. Mysterious Circles of the Adolescents: At night, the adolescent girls engage in mysterious games, walking in circles.

8:10 | 11. Glorification of the Chosen One: One of the girls — a virgin — is selected as the Chosen One after being twice caught in a perpetual circle. The adolescent girls honor her with a marital dance.

9:36 | 12. Evocation of the Ancestors: The adolescent girls invoke their ancestors in a brief dance.

10:30 | 13. Ritual of the Ancestors: The Chosen One is entrusted to the care of the old wise men.

14:06 | 14. Ritual Dance of the Chosen One: The Chosen One performs a sacrificial dance and dances herself to death in the presence of the old wise men.


Chopin, Etude Op. 10, No. 3 in E major (1832)

"After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own." – Oscar Wilde

Valentina Lisitsa, piano

Borodin, Polovtsian Dance No. 17 (1897)

Music was only a hobby for Alexander Borodin, a Russian physician and chemist who worked tirelessly for women’s rights. In addition to the great music he composed, his legacy includes a School of Medicine for Women, which he established in St. Petersburg in 1872. What a guy! Make sure you stay with this video beyond the beautiful opening themes and don’t miss all the fun that begins at 4:06.

Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the Sommernachtskonzert

Barber, Adagio for Strings – Quartet (1938)

Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings has been labeled “the saddest music ever written,” gaining status in the United States as the unofficial anthem of national mourning. During times of collective tragedy — such as the assassination of John Kennedy or the attacks of September 11 — Adagio Strings will certainly make an appearance. It has also been used with tragic effect in numerous films, such as The Elephant Man and Platoon. Although the Adagio is traditionally performed by string orchestra, Barber originally composed it as the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. The version embedded below is from the original version for string quartet.

The Dover Quartet



Mozart, Clarinet Concerto, Second Movement (1791)

This clarinet concerto was the last significant work Mozart finished before his death in December 1791. London’s Classic FM audience recently ranked the concerto at #8 in it’s 2018 Hall of Fame poll for favorite pieces of classical music.

Martin Fröst, clarinet

Bach and the Internet's Pot of Gold

“When I finish playing one of the books of The Well-Tempered Clavier in one evening, I have the feeling that this is actually much longer than my real life, that I have been on a journey through history, one that begins and ends in silence.” – Daniel Barenboim, Music Quickens Time

In 1708, Johann Sebastian Bach accepted a job as organist, composer, and chamber musician for the Duke of Weimar. Even though the Duke raised Bach's salary in 1713 to keep him at Weimar, Bach felt snubbed in 1717 when the Duke passed him over for a job as Kapellmeister (Director of Music). Angry at the Duke, Bach decided to leave Weimar and take a job as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold at the Court of Anhalt-Cöthen. When the Duke refused to give Bach an early dismissal from his job at Weimar, Bach made such a fuss that the Duke had him thrown in jail. During the month he was in jail, as the legend goes, he began composing his iconic work,
The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Bach completed his first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722, furnishing the world with preludes and fugues for keyboard in all twelve major and minor keys — a total of twenty-four pieces of music. Twenty years later, Bach completed a second book, again producing preludes and fugues in every major and minor key. All told, the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier provide an encyclopedic record of Bach’s extensive understanding of the keyboard and the music it can produce.

“For the use and profit of the musical youth desirous of learning and for the pastime of those already skilled in the study." – Bach's inscription to Book One of The Well-Tempered Clavier

Although the forty-eight pieces Bach composed for The Well-Tempered Clavier stand collectively as a masterwork of music, they were most likely conceived by Bach primarily as technical exercises, a means of providing keyboard players experience at working with chords, arpeggios, and scales in every key. Indeed, the music has been used to train musicians of all nationalities and musical styles for almost 400 years, including many of history's best-known composers and performers

The Well-Tempered Clavier, for example, formed a foundation for the lessons delivered by Nadia Boulanger, the famous French teacher who trained over 1200 musicians, including composers of such disparate styles as Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, and Charlie Parker. Even though Boulanger was well known for helping composers develop their individual voices, she did standardize one element of her instruction — she required every student to memorize Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

“Let the Well-Tempered Clavier become your daily bread. Then you will become a musician.” – Robert Schumann to Felix Mendelssohn

And now for the primary purpose of this posting: If you would like to find a pot of gold on the internet, look no further than the website that features the pianist Kimiko Ishizaka playing Book One of The Well-Tempered Clavier in its entirety. Adding even more luster to that pot of gold is a collection of animated graphical scores from Stephen Malinowski, creator of the Music Animation Machine. Malinowski has created animated graphical scores for the entirety of Ishizaka's performance. (What a great time to be alive when treasures like this are so easily accessible!)

I have embedded Ishizaka's entire performance of the Well-Tempered Clavier below, and to whet your appetite for Malinowski's work I have added a video of the Fugue in C major. I recommend visiting Malinowski's YouTube playlist featuring animated graphical scores of all 24 works from Book One.

Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, Kimiko Ishizaka (piano)


Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, Fugue in C major
video by Stephen Malinowski and the Music Animation Machine (Kimko Ishizaka, piano)

Bach, Suite in E minor for Lute, "Bourée" (c. 1717)

Sometime around 1717, Johann Sebastian Bach composed the Suite in E minor for Lute, which includes a Bourée as the fifth of six movements. Over 250 years later, in 1968, Paul McCartney borrowed the Bourée as an inspiration for his song “Blackbird” on the Beatles' White Album. A year after that, the rock group Jethro Tull included the Bourée on their album Stand Up, providing even more evidence that Bach's music is ubiquitous in our culture.

For what it's worth, a "Bourée" is a seventeenth-century French dance with two beats per measure.

Andreas Martin, Lute


Paul McCartney, "Blackbird"


Jethro Tull with Ian Anderson on flute at the AVO SESSION Basel, Switzerland

Mozart Breaks a Rule

"People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times." –Wolfgang Mozart, in a letter to a friend (attributed)

In 1770, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a fourteen-year-old prodigy who had been touring Europe as a performer since the age of six. While traveling through Italy with his father, he found himself at the Vatican during the days preceding Easter, and he heard a performance of the legendary work of vocal music titled
Miserere. The Catholic church had printed only three copies of the piece and had restricted performances to Holy Week services in the Sistine Chapel. Within hours after hearing the piece, Mozart created a manuscript of Miserere from memory. He created the manuscript without the pope’s permission and then returned to the Sistine Chapel two days later on Good Friday — Friday the 13th — to hear the piece again and make corrections to his manuscript.

Miserere was one of the most safely guarded works of art in Europe, and performers were prohibited from taking the music outside the Vatican. By creating a manuscript of the music, Mozart violated a papal edict protecting it. His transcription may have even contributed to the published versions appearing all over Europe the next year. No one is certain. Historians do know, however that Mozart’s father seemed determined to abide by the pope's decree.

"You have often heard of the famous Miserere in Rome, which is so greatly prized that the performers are forbidden on pain of excommunication to take away a single part of it, copy it or to give it to anyone. But we have it already. Wolfgang has written it down and we would have sent it to Salzburg in this letter, if it were not necessary for us to be there to perform it. But the manner of performance contributes more to its effect than the composition itself. Moreover, as it is one of the secrets of Rome, we do not wish to let it fall into other hands." – Leopold Mozart, in a letter to his wife, April 14, 1770

When Pope Clement XIV heard about Mozart's transcription of Miserere he did not condemn the boy for violating his decree. Instead, he recognized Mozart’s musical genius with a papal knighthood, making Mozart a Knight of the Order of the Golden Spur.

Allegri, Miserere – King's College Chapel Choir


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Many thanks to
The Greatest Music Stories Never Told by Rick Beyer for introducing me to this story.