Composition and premiere: Sergei Diaghilev commissioned Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) on August 8, 1911. Stravinsky quickly finished Part I by early January 1912 and completed the sketch score on November 17. Diaghilev’s Parisian Ballet Russes premiered the work at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on May 29, 1913, with Pierre Monteux conducting. Leopold Stokowski led the first American performance on March 3, 1922, with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Monteux also led the first BSO performances in January 1924. The most recent BSO subscription performances came in April 2019 under Gustavo Dudamel and Ken-David Masur. Serge Koussevitzky led the BSO’s first Tanglewood performance on August 12, 1939, and Charles Dutoit led the most recent on August 4, 2013, as well as a Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra performance in Ozawa Hall in August 2016.
The impresario Sergei Diaghilev almost singlehandedly imported the riches of Russian art, music, theater, and ballet to the West. After arranging a successful Russian art exhibit and presenting a popular series of concerts featuring Russian music, he brought to Paris, in 1909, a complete troupe of set designers, costumers, choreographers, dancers, and composers to introduce the French to Ballet Russes (Russian ballet). Diaghilev was adept at finding and nurturing artistic talent, and his ballet troupe included such luminaries as Mikhail Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Leon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, and a young Igor Stravinsky, whom Diaghilev first encountered in 1909 when he attended the premiere of the composer’s dazzling orchestral works Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks.
Stravinsky’s first ballet for Diaghilev—The Firebird (L’Oiseau de feu), based on a Russian fairytale—garnered rave reviews after the premiere in June 1910, and raised Stravinsky’s clout in Parisian artistic circles. The music of Firebird is rooted in 19th-century compositional practice but offers glimpses of Stravinsky’s later scores—with exotic and symmetrical scales to signal the supernatural and syncopations and cross accents to enliven the rhythm, all rendered with brilliant textures and striking orchestration. These qualities grew more prominent in Stravinsky’s next ballet for Diaghilev, Petrushka (1911), a vivid kaleidoscope of Shrovetide bustle featuring, in Stravinsky’s words, “a puppet, suddenly endowed with life.”
With his third ballet, Le Sacre du printemps, Stravinsky secured his place as the foremost composer of his day. He took two years to prepare his daring score, following a vision the composer had in 1911 of a young girl in pagan Russia, dancing herself to a ritual death surrounded by village elders. The composer’s friend Nikolai Roerich, a painter and scholar of ancient Russia, designed the sets, and Vaslav Nijinsky, the star dancer in the Ballets Russes, choreographed the ballet.
The riot that erupted at the 1913 premiere is infamous, beginning with isolated laughter and mild protests during the Introduction and growing as the curtain rose. Opposing factions, pro versus contra, bickered, while Diaghilev frantically flicked the lights off and on. Meanwhile Nijinsky screamed the count to the dancers from backstage through the cacophony. The police were called, Stravinsky stormed out, and the the brawl made the front pages of the Parisian papers.
Why such a commotion? Perhaps the Rite introduced too much novelty at once. The theatrical components—scenario, choreography, sets, costumes—feature unfamiliar styles, and the score is no different. Stravinsky drew heavily on folk song, though he treated it as raw material, cutting, pasting, repeating, and reorganizing gestures, fragments, and patterns to create something new with endless potential for rhythmic manipulation. The Rite is, at times, highly dissonant, but more than the dissonant chords themselves the syncopations and metric shifts with which he set these chords were genuinely unique. Time has not dulled its cutting-edge quality. Indeed, the Rite sounds radically new, even to our 21st-century ears.
Elizabeth Seitz is a faculty member at The Boston Conservatory at Berklee, a frequent guest speaker for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Lyric Opera, and a musicologist whose interests range from Mozart, Schubert, and Mahler to Falla and Tito Puente.