Some of those in attendance to see the Ballets Russes at the Théâtre des Champs-élysées on May 29, 1913, would already have been familiar with the young Russian composer Igor Stravinsky through his 1910 ballet L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird). But if they expected his newest work to proceed in the same familiar and pleasing vein as his first, they were in for a surprise. From the moment the premiere performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (Rite of Spring) began on this night in 1913, it was clear that even an audience of sophisticated Parisians was totally unprepared for something so avant-garde.
From the first notes of the overture, sounded by a bassoon playing well outside its normal register, Stravinsky’s haunting music set the audience on edge. It was the combination of that music with the jarring choreography of the great Vaslav Nijinsky, however, that caused the uproar that followed. “The curtain rose on a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down,” Stravinsky later remarked of the brutal opening seen of Le Sacre du printemps, which depicts a virgin sacrifice in an ancient pagan Russia. Catcalls began to issue from the audience as they took in the bizarre scene playing out before them. The noise became great enough that the orchestra could not be heard from the stage, causing Nijinsky to climb atop a chair in the wings shouting out instructions to his dancers onstage. While Stravinsky sat fuming as his music was drowned out by jeers, whistles and—if one witness is to be believed—members of the audience barking like dogs, Serge Diaghelev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, frantically switched the house lights on and off in a futile effort to restore order. It was, in other words a scene that bore a closer resemblance to the Marx Brothers’ A Night At The Opera than it did to a typical night at the Ballets Russes.
In retrospect, Stravinsky’s score can be seen as paving the way for 20th-century modern composition, and it sounds no more daring to today’s listeners than the average dramatic film scores. Yet no present-day listener—and certainly no listener who first encountered it as part of the soundtrack to Disney’s animated Fantasia (1940)—can possibly appreciate how shocking the dissonance, droning and asymmetrical rhythms of Le Sacre du printemps sounded to its premiere audience on this night in 1913.