CULTURE WARS & How Stravinsky’s composition “Rite of Spring” sparked a musical and physical clash between Russian cultures

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: Worship wars over styles of music are nothing new. And, if you look at musical history you will see they are often a cultural clash between different cultural preferences. Understanding that cultures (including age, ethnic and affinity cultures) prefer different styles of music is part of understanding other cultures. Read this interesting article by the classical music critic of the BBC to understand a classic (pun intended) example of cultural and musical clashes that accompanied the debut of Stravinsky’s landmark composition “Rite of Spring.”

Did The Rite of Spring really spark a riot?

by Ivan Hewett, BBC Classical music critic, 5/29/13.

Of all the scandals of the history of art, none is so scandalous as the one that took place on the evening of 29 May 1913 in Paris at the premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring.

The Rite descended into a riot, the story goes. Magnified in the retelling, it has acquired the unquestionable certainty that only legend can have. Everyone simply “knows” that there was a riot.

But is it possible to separate fact from fiction?

Was there violence?

Dozens of witnesses left accounts of the evening, but they tend to say different things. According to some, blows were exchanged, objects were thrown at the stage, and at least one person was challenged to a duel…

There had been some noise two weeks earlier at the premiere of Debussy’s ballet, Jeux, and critics had heaped abuse on Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography. Now Nijinsky had choreographed the Rite of Spring – rumoured to be the last word in Russian primitivism or modernist chic, depending who you believed. So part of the audience may well have been predisposed to be outraged.

“There was an existing tremor in the air against Nijinsky before any curtain went up,” says Stephen Walsh, professor of music at Cardiff University. Others say the trouble began with the start of the overture and its strangled bassoon melody, and other strange sounds never before conjured from an orchestra.

Igor Stravinsky, for his part, said the storm only really broke after the overture, “when the curtain opened on the group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down”…

The brand new Theatre of the Champs Elysees was “awash with diamonds and furs” according to one contemporary report. It seems that the beau monde really did turn out for this premiere – and some will have been keener than others on the avant-garde performance. Jean Cocteau wrote that “the aesthetic crowd… would applaud novelty simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes”.

But were they divided by class? Buch says there are unlikely to have been any poor or even middle class people in the auditorium.

“My reading of the evidence is that actually the divisions went inside social groups – you have people who are very much alike and they have different opinions on the piece.” One barrier to understanding the quarrel, Buch adds, is that none of those who protested ever left a record explaining the reason for their anger…

The young Stravinsky had taken Paris by storm in previous seasons. His Petrushka, the year before, had been a massive hit. “There is no question at all, he was a star,” says Walsh. But compared with the Rite of Spring, “Petrushka was not such a forbidding score, by any means.”

Stravinsky himself said that when he first played the beginning of the Rite, with its dissonant chords and pulsating rhythm, to Serge Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev asked him a “very offending” question: “Will it last a very long time this way?” (Stravinsky replied: “To the end, my dear.”)

So the music was as startling as the strange jerky movements of the choreography. Esteban Buch argues that you cannot separate the impact of one from the other. What upset people, he thinks, was “the very notion of primitive society being shown on stage”.

1913 production of The Rite of Spring

(Dancers portraying Russian primitives)

Fast forward to the last 30 minutes of this BBC2 video for an idea about the commotion this historic composition created

Read more at … http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22691267