Friday 13 September 2013

An Unpredictable Riot? 1913 and Stravinsky's Rites of Spring.

100 years ago, on a May evening, the audience were taking their seats at Paris’s Theatre Champs-Élysées. It had only been open a few weeks. A new ballet was being staged that night, composed by the young, relatively unknown Igor Stravinsky. It had been commissioned by the great choreographer Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, although that night the sequences had been arranged by his colleague Nijinsky. The costumes were bright, colourful and reminiscent of Russian folk art. The whole work had a raw, primitive feel.

 Yet Stravinsky’s piece was fused in a modernist crucible. Its participants were at the vanguard of all that was modern in the pre-war world. The city’s art world had been swept by a wave of incredible innovation, with the experiments of post-Impressionism resolving into a number of significant movements, from the colourful Fauvism and Orphism, to Picasso’s synthetic and abstract Cubism. In England, their works had caused a sensation at two Bloomsbury-run exhibitions at the Grafton Galleries and in Italy, motion and machine were celebrated in Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto. That year had also seem Parisian poet Guillaume Apollinaire publish Alcools, his cubist musings on the city, past and present, often called the great Modernist poem.

                                                                 experiment from Alcools

 1913 was an exciting year, with the old mores and methods thrown out in favour of the complete destruction of the rules governing structure, colour, subject matter and style. Stravinsky was also an iconoclast. His work challenged existing tastes in rhythm, metre and tonality, achieving a captivating dissonance that was completely new.

                                                         Composition by Picasso, 1913
Coming amid these innovations, the Parisian audience should have been accustomed to the shock of the new. But the work of the artistic vanguard had permeated a relatively small geographical location, encompassing Montmartre and Montparnasse, outside the academic hegemony that favoured the traditional, classical and harmonic. The audience comprised many lead artists and thinkers of the day, spilt among the modernists and members of the wealthy middle classes. Some were receptive, most were not. The performance prompted hissing, jeers, boos and the auditorium almost erupted in a riot. It was too shocking for many of its critics in 1913 but hindsight has vindicated Stravinsky’s masterpiece. Critic have referred to it as the single most significant moment in music history in the twentieth century. It broke the rules of musical composition as significantly as Picasso’s Cubism did with the human form and still life.

It is impossible to consider 1913 now without the benefit of hindsight; the looming conflict in the Balkans would escalate into one of the worst examples of senseless loss and destruction of the century. The outbreak of the First World War, fifteen months after Stravinsky's premier, would permanently derail the hot house of European modernism. This ballet, along with the poems and art of the period are the relics of a revolutionary flower that was nipped in the bud too soon.

Here is a section of the ballet, reconstructed from Stravinsky’s notes, danced by the Joffrey Company of Chicago, see what you think:

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