Musings on Le Sacre’s 100th Birthday

Everything about Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is eternally fresh, and re-invigorating with each repeated listening, just like the birth of the season it purports to celebrate. But of one thing I am completely fed up with – the sanctification of its raucous premiere.

 Here’s the thing about the events of history: they are messy and uncertain, with little clarity as they’re happening. But we are a storytelling race, and stories have rhythms and archetypes. We consciously and unconsciously reshape our personal history and cultural history around these more orderly, meaningful structures.

 What’s tragic in the case of the Rite of Spring is how easily we as a musical culture have allowed the events of the premiere to shape our understanding of the work. If the piece had received a worshipful response, there’s little doubt that its credibility as a work of progressive art would be less preeminent among some listeners. That very act of awesome rejection also defines us – we who love it and are at the forefront of composing new works often view the direct challenge of a brutally conservative audience as a necessary trial. It casts us into the role of heroes who take on the public fearlessly – instead of just composers creating interesting, profound, and diverting bits of sound.

 But when you take a closer look, you see that it’s a bit of a sham. Take Saint-Saëns, for instance, a key villian in the Rite Riot narrative. The snarky quotes from him are endless, particularly about the opening bassoon solo of the Introduction: “What instrument was that?” – or – “That’s not a bassoon, that’s a baboon!” Then, he is made out to have stormed out of the theatre. Well, actually, Saint-Saëns probably wasn’t there at all – Stravinsky in particular denies it, and he would know. Saint-Saëns was notorious for dropping in on contemporary premieres, and once even wrote a denunciatory letter in response to one of Darius Milhaud’s polytonal compositions, which ended up in a frame in Milhaud’s study. But Saint-Saëns probably didn’t attend this premiere. Making loud comments after the first bar of a piece for the entire audience and then walking out was not his style.

 In fact, just like Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off of a live bat, the Rite Riot ended up being one of those musical events to which many people invited themselves after the fact. These non-attendees each had a story to tell, which became a part of the embroidery of the event, until it became difficult to tell what had really happened. Actual attendees were no better, reporting many different variations on a theme, often contradictory.

 Stravinsky also pitched in on re-imagining the premiere. After the Rite had evolved into a much-repeated orchestral showpiece divorced from its choreography, its composer started to rewrite its history, and his own in the making. Because indeed his own story had evolved. In the early 19-teens, he was a company man, working directly and nearly exclusively for an awesome corporation, the Ballets Russes. His creative efforts on their behalf were dedicated to a resynthesis of the Russian sound, picking up the threads of traditional and late-Romantic expression of that culture and then expanding the potential of those elements a thousand-fold. In the process, he reinvented harmonic language, rhythmic approach, and orchestral color. Masterful as that was, it was done in the service of a master impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, without whose efforts none of Stravinsky’s groundbreaking ingenuity would have found a world stage.

 But the inevitable happened – suites from the Firebird and Petrouchka made their way around the world, followed explosively by the score to Le Sacre along with the story of its scandalous premiere. Played almost exclusively as orchestral pieces, the focus shifted from the Ballets Russes to Stravinsky. For young composers and critics sympathetic to the avant-garde, he became a leading figure in contemporary music. Le Sacre and its older sister-pieces were appreciated only as music, with much of their programmatic meaning subtracted. Stravinsky suddenly found himself in a difficult position, being worshipped by a different culture than that of the ballet crowd. That culture had its own touchstones of credibility, and as Stravinsky gradually accepted his role as a leading figure in it, he rewrote the awkward history of his roots in the Paris ballet scene, along with the uncertain origins of his biggest showpiece.

 The more I’ve researched the history of the conception and development of the original production of Le Sacre, the more disappointed I’ve become with Stravinsky’s self-revisionism, and what he says about others. The figure of painter, mystic, and world-class diplomat Nicholas Roerich, who actually conceived the overall shape and ritual meaning of the ballet, dwindles into invisibility. Choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky becomes a buffoon, a “poor boy,” who can’t understand a single note of music. Quite a change from Stravinsky’s claim on opening night that the choreography was “incomparable” and “everything as I wanted it.”

 Let’s look closer at facts and figures that are inescapable – like the long, expensive process of bringing Le Sacre to the stage. Nijinsky devoted several months of work to the choreography, without recourse to any recording device, but relying on repeated replayings of the work on piano. It’s interesting to note here Stravinsky’s own inability to realize that a work so complex would require a great deal of assistance in setting to a dance troupe more accustomed to regular rhythmic patterns. He appears astonished and contemptuous in later writings at Nijinsky’s attempts to get his head around the score. And yet many quite credible and experienced ballet directors of today probably ask the same questions when they set the work to their troupes.

 These difficulties are evident in the enormous amount of orchestral rehearsals required – twenty-six rehearsals, five of which included the dancers, mostly within the feverish two weeks leading up to the premiere. The expense of keeping so many people occupied simultaneously must have been enormous – because there were also administrative concerns, along with technical crew who would have had to maintain the sets and numerous complex costumes. It was a huge effort all around.

 And yet for all this expense and effort, the original production of Le Sacre received only nine performances – five in Paris, and four in London. Moving past the raucous premiere, it’s interesting, important, and actually quite revealing that the subsequent performances were well-attended by respectful audience members, with only one or two isolated outbursts. What that tells us is that the team of Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Roerich, and Diaghilev had done their work well in choosing and realizing a topic to excite and attract the public of their day. Le Sacre was not a failure; nor was it a universally reviled work conceived in fire. It was an artistic triumph.

 So why was it performed only a handful of times? Here we get into the type of history that’s embarrassing for contemporary music icons of the early 20th century. In creating Le Sacre, the Ballets Russes now had a property that could be successfully revived and developed through repeated stagings. But personal issues intervened, as is so often the case in high-stakes multidisciplinary public art. Nijinsky suddenly married a ballerina, to the consternation of his lover and controlling patron Diaghilev, who kicked him out of the company in a fit of pique. Left without a ballet master, Diaghilev was forced to go begging back to Mikhael Fokine, who himself had resigned a year or so before when Nijinsky’s choreography was encouraged. The conditions of Fokine’s reinstatement included the suppression of all Nijinsky’s Ballets Russes choreography. And so Le Sacre was shelved, at a huge investment cost.

 This sudden poofing out of existence of the original production of Le Sacre, along with its gradual ascendency as a concert piece, only complicated its legacy. Diaghilev eventually revived it in 1920, with his new star choreographer Massine, but this version left Stravinsky cold, as did subsequent attempts to realize the work as ballet. Or did it really? Was it rather that Le Sacre’s relevance as a ballet work was no longer comfortable to him as an individual composer out from under Diaghilev’s thumb?

 Having studied the reconstruction of the original production of Le Sacre, I count myself as a big fan of both Nijinsky and Stravinsky, though there are some moments in the work where I feel that the grandeur and force of the music far outweighs the choreography. Perhaps that’s because what we are seeing is Nijinsky channeling the music through himself and into the bodies of the dancers. To them collectively, no moment of the music or dance is wasted. But we would have to be living the dance to really absorb the full impact of what’s onstage.

 In some ways, Nijinsky surpasses Stravinsky in realizing the final section of the work, transforming the original, rather brutal idea of a maiden dancing herself to death into one of pathos. No one who has gone through the cut-throat world of ballet could mistake Nijinsky’s meaning – the Chosen One is singled out decisively by her peers, and is surrounded by compliant and yet insistent worshippers, each intent that she should give them everything she has, even at the cost of her own existence – all so that the machinery of ritual can continue inexorably in its attempt to satisfy the public. Seen from that perspective, the ending is elevated from savagery to heights of intellectual and philosophical poignancy – because that is exactly what ultimately happened to Nijinsky, and he could see it coming where no one else could.

 If this production had been allowed to develop, as all Ballets Russes works usually did, its choreographer would have slowly adapted and evolved portions of the dance that didn’t work well – the clumsy final bar, for instance, where the Chosen One slumps back on the stage, to be lifted by the shamans. Or some of the walking-back-and-forth naturalism borrowed from Fokine’s production of Petrouchka. Then Le Sacre might have come fully into its own as a ground-breaking ballet, seen as a pivotal moment when the art of dance evolved towards modern forms. As it was, it was left to Nijinsky’s sister Bronislava Nijinska to carry forward his vision of contemporary ballet, which she did masterfully in works like Les Noces (sometimes seen as the sequel to Le Sacre).

 What does all of this mean? Simply that Le Sacre cannot be defined by its premiere, nor solely as a piece of orchestral music. When you get past the self-referential narratives and the exaggerations of the Rite Riot, what you’re left with is more a case of missed opportunities than a heroic, defiant triumph over the Paris public. To cast Stravinsky as a hero and the audience as a villain is to give too much credit to the first, and not enough credit to the second, who after all embraced the piece after the first night. And it’s also very important to understand that this was not an act of intentional provocation, but a serious labor of love – yet the story of its premiere inspired many further premieres by other composers that were more about provocation than convocation.

 There were just so many factors at work which led to the reaction of the audience at Le Sacre’s premiere (which, by the way, was directed mostly at the dancers, and only peripherally at the music). There were the politics of fame, with attendees there who were ready to boo at any innovation or extravagance. There was the Parisian public, a new generation of listeners freed from the claquers who’d directed their grandparents about when to applaud and for how long. And then there were those who saw themselves as artistic rivals of this cultural transplant into the heart of the Paris music scene, and only too willing to use the performance as a place to stage a demonstration. All these factors helped to erode the natural respect for a performance, particularly on its opening night when the press would be paying attention. So the reaction itself was not wholly motivated by principles that standing up to would necessarily prove heroic – but rather, patient and practical, knowing that the core audience of Ballets Russes would eventually come around, which they naturally did. But that didn’t make the headlines, back then or today. As is all too apparent, even informed music writers are still making the equation of riot + short run = failure, and riot + great work = vindication over time. No, the vindication happened on the night of the premiere, when more audience members attempted to quiet the riot than to instigate it.

 The fact remains, though, when all is said and done, that Le Sacre is a great work. It’s great as a concert work, and great as a ballet – and that greatness would be a fact whether the premiere were a riot or a love-feast, or even if it had sunk like a stone. And while its audacity is certainly appreciable, I feel that’s minor compared to its sincerity and intelligence, its warmth of heart. All the elements were in play – Stravinsky was at the height of his craft, in a creative zone where he had to be brilliant to stay on top, and he had the chops to do it. He was the top composer for the top musical attraction in the top cultural capital of the world of his day. Firebird had suddenly launched him to renown, and his next work was supposed to be Le Sacre, but instead he composed Petrouchka, which set the world on its ear. Then he finally set about composing Le Sacre. He had developed a fantastic instinct for the mechanics of drama, with the tapestry of unlimited orchestral resources and the best dancers on the planet. Le Sacre stands as the fulfillment of that period, the purest distillation of all his influences and artistic aspirations. That is what we should be honoring 100 years after its premiere – how the work culminated the experience of a youngish composer into perhaps the most powerful orchestral statement. Compared to the real story of that process and its interactions, the pathetic squawking of a couple hundred philistines seems arbitrary, like a flyspeck on the Mona Lisa.

 The challenge then, for us all as composers and musical thinkers, is to reject the easy equations, and to define a great work by its content and the process that brought it to life – because doing that sets the tone for what we do and what we expect. Ballets Russes did the hard work of building an audience through talent, imagination, innovation, persistence, investment, and intelligence (and not a little genteel blackmail from time to time). It rewarded that audience with ever greater and more spectacular productions, and certainly Le Sacre was its most ambitious. That’s a far more successful model of development for any artist than repeatedly spitting in the audience’s face (though a big fat loogey is occasionally necessary to wake everyone up). Remember that next time you read a worshipful, reverent account of the Rite Riot, implying that obnoxious reactions by fuddy-duddies are key to the validation of great art. No, the reactions are also a form of music – a soundtrack to a life. But soundtracks only inform the life, not the life’s work.

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