Igor Stravinsky, composer of The Rite of Spring
It began with a bassoon and ended in a brawl.
One hundred years ago today, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky debuted The Rite of Spring before a packed theater in Paris, with a ballet performance that would go down as one of the most important — and violent — in modern history.
Today, The Rite is widely regarded as a seminal work of modernism — a frenetic, jagged orchestral ballet that boldly rejected the ordered harmonies and comfort of traditional composition. The piece would go on to leave an indelible mark on jazz, minimalism, and other contemporary movements, but to many who saw it on that balmy evening a century ago, it was nothing short of scandalous.
MAYHEM AND CHAOS
Details surrounding the events of May 29th, 1913 remain hazy. Official records are scarce, and most of what is known is based on eyewitness accounts or newspaper reports. To this day, experts debate over what exactly sparked the incident — was it music or dance? publicity stunt or social warfare? — though most agree on at least one thing: Stravinsky’s grand debut ended in mayhem and chaos.
The tumult began not long after the ballet's opening notes — a meandering and eerily high-pitched bassoon solo that elicited laughter and derision from many in the audience. The jeers became louder as the orchestra progressed into more cacophonous territory, with its pounding percussion and jarring rhythms escalating in tandem with the tensions inside the recently opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, site of The Rite of Spring's infamous debut
Things reached a near-fever pitch by the time the dancers took the stage, under the direction of famed choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky of the Ballets Russes. Dressed in whimsical costumes, the dancers performed bizarre and violent moves, eschewing grace and fluidity for convulsive jerks that mirrored the work’s strange narrative of pagan sacrifice. Onstage in Paris, the crowd's catcalls became so loud that the ballerinas could no longer hear the orchestra, forcing Nijinsky to shout out commands from backstage.
A scuffle eventually broke out between two factions in the audience, and the orchestra soon found itself under siege, as angry Parisians hurled vegetables and other objects toward the stage. It's not clear whether the police were ever dispatched to the theater, though 40 people were reportedly ejected. Remarkably, the performance continued to completion, though the fallout was swift and brutal.
Henri Quittard, a music critic at French daily Le Figaro, described the debut as an exercise in "puerile barbarity," suggesting that Stravinsky had been corrupted by Nijinsky and Sergei Diaghilev — the impresario who founded the Ballets Russes and who had already stirred controversy for his company's erotic interpretation of Claude Debussy's L’Après-midi d’un faune.
"THOSE WHO LIKED THINGS TAME AND PRETTY, AND THOSE EAGER FOR SOMETHING NEW."
It remains unclear whether theatergoers that night were more disturbed by Stravinsky or Nijinsky, whose primitivist choreography may have been as viscerally shocking as the composer's unusual dissonance. Others have speculated that the event may have been orchestrated either as an elaborate publicity stunt on the part of Diaghilev, or as an operation planned by disgruntled traditionalists.
"The stories of the 'near riot' may have become exaggerated over time," Daniel Weymouth, associate professor of composition and theory at Stony Brook University, said in an email to The Verge. "There is evidence that the ruckus started between two factions at the Paris Opera — those who liked things tame and 'pretty' and those who were eager for something new — who were already primed for a confrontation."
By the early 1900s, Paris had become something of a fulcrum between tradition and modernity. The shift accelerated with the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 — a hulking metallic bullseye that drew scathing critiques, controversy, and millions of tourists. Around the same time, telephones, elevators, and other innovations were just making their ways into buildings, bringing with them a looming sense of change and technological upheaval.
These shifts crystallized in the arts, as well. Pablo Picasso began exploring new modes of Cubist representation, while Gertrude Stein and other Paris-based writers were testing the limits of language, searching for meaning that transcended lyricism and traditional narrative.
"EVEN THE YOUNGEST COMPOSERS TODAY LISTEN TO 'THE RITE' AND THINK 'MY GOD.'"
In some ways, this tension between old and new aesthetics reached a boiling point with The Rite's debut, marking an explosive cultural shift unlike any in recent memory. Nowadays, it’s difficult to imagine any single piece of art sparking the kind of turmoil that Stravinsky’s did a century ago.
Even by contemporary standards, Stravinsky’s harsh dissonance, complex rhythms, and repetitive melodies still seem avant-garde. There's a palpable sense of disconnect, as well — an unsettling step into a world governed not by human emotions or reason, but something else altogether. (Stravinsky himself once said that "there are simply no regions for soul-searching in The Rite of Spring.")
"Even the youngest composers coming to the fore today listen to The Rite and think, 'My God,'" Alex Ross, music critic at The New Yorker, told NPR this month. "It still sounds new to them."
"BRUTAL, TENDER, AND ALTOGETHER WONDERFUL."
The incident catapulted Stravinsky to international stardom as well, despite the negative early reviews that came out of Paris.
"One result of the so-called 'riot' was that Stravinsky effectively became the world's leading contemporary composer," says Eric Charnofsky, a composer and lecturer at Case Western Reserve University, describing him as "the one whose subsequent musical ventures defined 'modernism' in the minds of audiences and critics."
This evening, the Mariinsky Ballet will celebrate The Rite's 100th anniversary with a performance at the same theater where it debuted to boos and violence. The ballet will be broadcast live on French national television and live-streamed on a giant outdoor display in front of the Hôtel de Ville in central Paris.
When audiences gather tonight, they won't be doing so in protest and they likely won't come armed with vegetables. Instead, they'll convene to celebrate what Weymouth describes as "one of the great aesthetic monuments of Western art — completely assured, startlingly original, brutal, tender, and altogether wonderful."