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.
In this post, I’ll address:
- What (actually) happened at the premiere of The Rite
- What happened in the aftermath of the premiere
- Where the myth of the riot originated, and
- Why the myth persists
What (actually) happened at the premiere of The Rite?
Recent musicological research, notably Tamara Levitz’s “Racism at The Rite,” outright contradicts the narrative of a riot. Most of the information I use in this post comes from Dr. Levitz’s essay, which she was generous enough to send me, along with additional material. I find her explanation of what happened at the premiere and the origins of the riot myth convincing.
Levitz points out that many of our firsthand accounts of the premiere come from one specific location in the theater: the balcony. The balcony of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées was exceptionally resonant due to aspects of its architecture; sound from the orchestra (which was unusually large) bounced off concrete walls. Yes, Stravinsky composed deliberately harsh sounds, but the environment likely exaggerated the effect in the balcony, rendering the sound overwhelming. Since this is the only audience perspective that has been preserved in history, we have no idea whether other sections of the audience experienced the same disorientation. As for what the people in the balcony experienced, Levitz proposes that the hall’s acoustics and The Rite’s subject matter “unleashed an unsettling sonic chain reaction.”
Because of The Rite’s “prehistoric” setting, Nijinsky’s choreography and Nicholas Roerich’s costumes emphasized what at that time was at that time called the “primitive” aspect (an unfortunate term by 21st-century standards). The dancers’ stomping movements were inspired in part by ethnographic accounts of dances in Siberia.
(In 1987, the Joffrey Ballet mounted a production of The Rite that reconstructed Nijinsky’s original choreography and reproduced Roerich’s original costume design, giving later audiences a sense of how the ballet looked at its premiere, as seen in the video below.)
Levitz points out that the audience had a limited frame of reference for such displays; they most often saw them in demonstrations at colonial expositions that presented the “exotic” traditions of exploited people for the amusement of their European colonizers. Some dance moves had found their way into the cabaret and music hall, where they were intended as humor—as the title of Levitz’s essay indicates, these practices were very racist. Thus some in the audience—notably the aristocrats—responded in the way they thought they were supposed to: by laughing.
The disrespectful behavior of the aristocrats appalled the critics, musicians, and music lovers, so they responded by complaining and insulting the aristocrats. Given the various dynamics at play—aristocrats vs. middle class, French vs. Germans, Russians vs. French—things escalated quickly. History records several specific insults, but while most depictions of the conflict give the impression that they were shouted across the whole theater, Levitz speculates, “In truth, only those sitting close to the people who uttered these insults probably heard them at all.”
Again, because the experiences in the balcony were recorded in reviews, correspondence, and personal journals, we know that the insults tended to refer to politics more than art. The ballet ignited explosive tempers, but the blasts were not all directed at the stage.
Despite these verbal assaults, the earliest accounts of that night do not mention any physical fights, much less a riot. Levitz cites several sources from the immediate aftermath of the premiere that compared the atmosphere to that of a contentious debate in Parliament or a criminal court trial—confrontational and impassioned, but not physically violent.
Furthermore, the myth conveniently neglects to mention that, at the end of The Rite, the dancers took five curtain calls, and the evening’s entertainment continued with another ballet, Carl Maria von Weber’s Le Spectre de la rose, also choreographed by Nijinsky. That wouldn’t seem possible if the altercation was as destructive as it’s been construed.
What happened in the aftermath of the premiere?
From here, we move into the realm of reception, which is the aspect of history that I find most interesting. Critics seemed more confused than outraged by the strangeness of the music. Levitz highlights how some reviews drew upon racist stereotypes, comparing The Rite to what they viewed as racially inferior and less civilized cultural practices. This had the effect of denying Stravinsky and Nijinsky their claim to art—if they just reproduced what “savages” do, then they didn’t really create Art.
Next came the backlash: Stravinsky and Nijinsky responded in interviews the next day by emphasizing the amount of work that went into the production. They wanted to prove that they were artists who produced a new work of art. Further bolstering their claim to art, Pro-Stravinsky writers compared The Rite to paintings by Paul Gauguin, using established aesthetics of French Modernism to carve a niche for the ballet. They also accused regressive “snobs” of feeling threatened by the music’s revolutionary nature. Yet it’s important to recognize that these were not the terms of the arguments happening during the premiere—the initial impression overall was that The Rite was “strange,” not revolutionary.
When did a “riot” enter the narrative?
|A depiction of chaos that certainly did NOT ensue|
at the premiere of The Rite of Spring.
The first mention of physical altercations at the premiere came from eyewitness Carl van Vechten, who claimed that a man sitting behind him “beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists.” This evocative quote comes from 1915—two years later, as even firsthand accounts were embellished in the retelling. The thrill of violence played especially well in the United States, so unsurprisingly, promoters emphasized that aspect when The Rite came to American cities.
The first recorded instance of the word “riot” in connection to The Rite’s Paris premiere—so far as Levitz has found—was in 1924, in critic Olin Downes’s review of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance at Carnegie Hall. Another music critic, Lawrence Gilman, followed Downes’s lead by using “riot” a few days later, reinforcing the image.
The word “riot” seemed to travel the country with conductor Pierre Monteux in promotional materials and reviews, further cementing the myth in the public imagination—at least in the United States. Levitz notes that the term was not used in reviews of The Rite in the United Kingdom until 1947, thirty-four years after the riot allegedly happened!
Why does the myth of the riot persist?
Since the events of the premiere made it through what was essentially a huge game of telephone, the riot at The Rite has become a fixture of early twentieth-century music history. The image it offers is ridiculous: well-cultured people devolving into a mob over something so refined as ballet. It boldly challenges the current stereotype of classical music as stodgy and boring, which makes it the perfect story to tell the “unconverted.” I briefly mention the myth in my essay “Classical Music Isn’t Cool” as promotional gloss aimed at younger audiences.
Yet the myth doesn’t just claim that a riot occurred—it asserts that Stravinsky’s music caused the riot. Stravinsky himself helped shift focus from the full ballet production to just the music by encouraging performances of the score as concert music, without any of the theatrical elements. We can observe that shift in the quote from Hewett that I used at the beginning of this post: “The audience was shocked…The Rite of Spring contradicted every rule about what music should be.”
As Levitz puts it, the myth establishes a “false causality…between artistic revolution and bodily revolt.” It tells a version of music history that people want to be true, of Great Art having the power to make people do things. The extreme reaction of the audience reinforces the reputation of The Rite as one of the greatest works of art in the twentieth century.
Though Levitz’s research painstakingly separates action at the premiere from waves of critical aftermath, most retellings of this myth tend to smush events together into an undifferentiated mass of tangled causality. Another quote from Hewett’s version of events demonstrates this tendency:
“And yet, among the shouting and hissing, there were one or two sensitive observers who realised they were witnessing something deeply original, rather than merely shocking. The American (later British) poet T S Eliot realised that what made the music of the Rite original was its puzzling combination of the primitive and the modern.”This passage congratulates the “one or two” perceptive critics who instantly understood the artistic significance of The Rite. But in reality, it took time to figure out how to relate it to contemporary artistic trends. That quote from T.S. Eliot comes from 1921, years after the myth about The Rite took hold and the aesthetic of “primitivism” had been established.
Hewett separates the “sensitive observers” from the rest of the crowd to align them with us, the people of the future who know how this story turns out. People who couldn’t accept Stravinsky’s ballet score as art are undeniably on the wrong side of history, as The Rite is firmly established in the classical canon. Its fame has far outlived its detractors.
There’s a smug satisfaction in knowing that the snobs were ultimately wrong. One of my favorite books is Nicholas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective. It’s a collection of period reviews that trash famous pieces by Great Composers. It’s fun to read the vivid descriptions that only happen when a writer really, really hates something, and we can look back and laugh at how mistaken they were to scoff at Beethoven.
But we can laugh only because we have the privilege of being in the future. We can look back and see how Beethoven’s music inspires subsequent generations, and we know that Stravinsky goes on to have a long, successful career. Much as we’d like to believe that we would be the ones to recognize such potential in the moment, it’s likely that we wouldn’t have. In history, perspective is everything—narrowing it to a single vantage point, whether in time or a specific location in a theater, can cause us to miss what actually happened.
Special thanks to Tamara Levitz for sharing her research and correcting my own misconceptions. Thanks also to Emma Parker, Naomi Graber, Brin Solomon, David Miller, Mary Jane Leach, and Andrew Dell’Antonio for their valuable feedback in preparing this post! Finally, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Byron Adams for pointing me to Levitz's work. Without that tip, this post would not have been possible.
Like what you’ve read?
Tamara Levitz, “Racism at The Rite” in The Rite of Spring at 100 (Indiana University Press, 2013), 146-78.
Ian Hewett, “The riot at the Rite: the premiere of The Rite of Spring” for the British Library, https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/the-riot-at-the-rite-the-premiere-of-the-rite-of-spring