The Rite of Spring premiered on May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The ballet depicts ritual sacrifice in prehistoric Russia, or at least what Stravinsky and his collaborators imagined “prehistoric Russia” to be. The premiere was expected to be a major cultural event, given the talent involved.
The Ballets Russes—literally, “Russian Ballet”—was a hot ticket, as Parisians were drawn to the Eastern exoticism of previous productions, including Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911), both of which had music composed by the young up-and-comer Stravinsky. Vaslav Nijinsky, the choreographer, was known for his shocking and often risqué choreography (such as his 1912 performance of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d'un faune, reproduced in this video).
The performance was unlike anything the audience expected: the costumes were ugly, the choreography heavy, and the music harsh. In the words of 21st-century music critic Ivan Hewett:
“The audience was shocked – and with good reason. Stravinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring contradicted every rule about what music should be. The sounds are often deliberately harsh…The music was cacophonously loud, assaulting the ears with thunderous percussion and shrieking brass. Rhythmically it was complex in a completely unprecedented way.”Some in the audience booed and jeered at the performance, causing others to defend the artistic integrity of the ballet with shouts and insults, causing such a ruckus that no one could even hear the music, including the dancers. The fighting in the audience got so bad that some resorted to physical violence, causing a riot that overshadowed the actual performance.
So the story goes.
Even sites that aren’t devoted to classical music have published articles covering the riot, especially in light of the premiere’s centenary in 2013. As for classical music sites, you can count on it to appear on lists like “Top Five Crazy Riots in Classical Music” and “10 OMG moments in classical music” Radiolab devoted an episode of their podcast to reimagining the premiere “through the lens of modern neurology.” And, I confess, as a grad student I even taught this to a bunch of unsuspecting undergrads in a music appreciation course. But here’s the problem:
The riot never happened.