The fracas that greeted the Parisian premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) is legendary. It was the hottest ticket in town and it caused a sensation.
Paris’s newly built Théâtre des Champs-Élysées opened on 2 April 1913 with a programme celebrating the works of many of the leading composers of the day. Next came the famous Ballets Russes, for which the canny impresario Sergei Diaghilev had been paid a small fortune. The premiere of The Rite of Spring was scheduled for 29 May 1913 in a programme comprising Les Sylphides, Weber’s Le Spectre de la Rose and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. The company included the dancers Nijinsky (who choreographed The Rite) and Anna Pavlova – although it was the less well-known Maria Piltz (photo right) who danced the sacrificial maiden.
The orchestra and dancers found the unusual music difficult to assimilate. Final rehearsals took place in the presence of members of the press and invited guests and according to Stravinsky all went well. The evening of 29 May began with Les Sylphides, in which Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina danced the main roles. The Rite of Spring followed. Eyewitnesses agree that disturbances began during the Introduction and increased when the curtain rose on the stamping dancers in “Augurs of Spring”.
In his autobiography Stravinsky (photo left) writes that the derisive laughter that greeted the first few bars (written for solo bassoon pitched at the desolate top of its range) infuriated him and he left the auditorium to watch the rest of the performance from the stage wings. The uproar drowned out the music and Nijinsky resorted to shouting out rehearsal numbers to the dancers.
Throughout the disturbances the performance continued without interruption. Things grew noticeably quieter during Part II, and by some accounts Maria Piltz’s rendering of the final “Sacrificial Dance” was watched in relative silence. At the end there were several curtain calls for the dancers, for the conductor Pierre Monteux and the orchestra, and for Stravinsky and Nijinsky before the programme continued.
The French writer Henri Alain-Fournier, author of Le Grand Meaulnes published later that same year, attended the premiere with his close friend, the arts critic Jacques Rivière. Fournier expressed great enthusiasm for the new work and great indignation at the behaviour of parts of the audience. Rivière finally wrote about his feelings in the November edition of La Nouvelle Revue Française. He described the work as a “biological ballet… not just the dance of the most primitive people but the dance before people existed,” concluding his perceptive review with these words:
“Le Sacre du Printemps is a piece of the primeval world which has been preserved without aging and which continues to breath mysteriously in front of our eyes, with its flora and fauna. It’s a piece of wreckage from the past, teeming, gnawed by familiar and monstrous life-forms. It’s a stone full of holes from which crawl unknown creatures occupied with tasks that are incomprehensible and long outdated.”
This masterpiece, one hundred years old this year, has still not aged.