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The Rite of Spring Riot, 1913

Igor Stravinsky

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gor Stravinsky conducting, Russian-born composer, c1920. Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
In May 1913, Igor Stravinsky debuted his ballet The Rite of Spring (watch a YouTube video). Though it is one of Stravinsky's most famous works, his creation was first met with harsh criticism, negative reviews, and yes - a riot.

The Cause and Events of the "Rite of Spring" Riot

Stravinsky debuted the The Rite of Spring Ballet at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 29, 1913, to an audience accustomed to the grace, elegance, and traditional music of "conventional" ballets, i.e. Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Opposition to Stravinsky's work literally happened within the first few minutes of the piece as members of the audience booed loudly in response to the inharmonic notes accompanying the unrecognizable bassoon's opening solo. What's more, the work's unconventional music, sharp and unnatural choreography (dancers danced with bent arms and legs and would land on the floor so hard their internal organs would shake), and Russian pagan setting, failed to win over the majority of the audience.

As the ballet progressed, so did the audience's discomfort. Those in favor of Stravinksy's work argued with those in opposition. The arguments eventually turned to brawls and police had to be notified. They arrived at intermission and successfully calmed the angry crowd (yes, the show wasn't even half way over before people were throwing punches). As the second half commenced, police were unable to keep the audience under control and rioting resumed. Stravinsky was so taken aback by the audience's reaction, he fled the scene before the show was over.

The Rite of Spring in the 21st Century

Just like Beethoven's 9th Symphony changed the future of symphony composition, so Stravinky's Rite of Spring did to ballet. Up until that point, ballet was beautiful, elegant, and charming. As I mentioned before, audiences were used to seeing and hearing works like Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring introduced new concepts in music, dance, and story. Today, it is considered to be a milestone in the history of ballet. It has become a regular work in many ballet companies' repertoires. The music has been used extensively, as in Disney's Fantasia. It has also inspired composers like John Williams (Star Wars) and Jerry Goldsmith (Outland).

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