Riot of spring

The fist fight heard 'round the music world.

ASK ANY MUSICIAN what works he or she would like to have heard the premiere of, and one of the top answers is likely to be Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring. The audience at the Paris premiere, on May 29, 1913, responded with legendary intensity. The composer himself recalled the WTO-esque scene, complete with fistfights and arrests, in his book Expositions and Developments:

Mild protests against the music could be heard from the very beginning. . . . Then, when the curtain opened . . . the storm broke. I heard [composer and critic] Florent Schmitt shout "Taisez-vous [Shut up!], garces du seizi譥"; the "garces" of the sixteenth arrondissement were, of course, the most elegant ladies in Paris. The uproar continued, however. . . . I arrived in a fury backstage, where I saw [impresario] Diaghilev flicking the house lights in a last effort to quiet the hall. I stood in the wings behind [choreographer] Nijinsky . . . while he stood on a chair shouting numbers to the dancers.

Seattle Symphony

'Rite of Spring'

Gerard Schwarz conducts

Benaroya Hall, June 8-9

Stravinsky's score survived that riot to become a landmark in music history. Rhythm, rather than melody or harmony, is the piece's organizing force. Its unsettling syncopations and relentless hammering repetitions build to brutal climaxes. The orchestration is lavish, but never pretty in the conventional sense—the sparkle Stravinsky included in The Firebird just three years earlier is nowhere to be heard.

The Rite of Spring's effect on the world of sound can be likened to throwing open a locked door. With these dazzling innovations, Stravinsky changed our very conception of music. But not only was the music influential—that riotous premiere, the event itself, inspired composers, too. The critic Florent Schmitt, in his review of that Paris night, provides the first hint of a rift between composer and audience: "The genius of Igor Stravinsky could not have received more striking confirmation than in the incomprehension and vicious hostility of the crowd. . . ."

PREDICTABLY, and with varying degrees of tongue-in-cheekery, any well-received premiere provokes from composers some variation on the statement "If they liked it, it can't be any good." The Rite's status inflamed composers' heroic fantasies, and taught them to relish audience hostility as a badge of honor—whether the audience is the general public or one's peers. "Negative response is better than no response at all," composers usually reply when pressed to defend this attitude. Well, perhaps. Still, many composers since 1913 have labored under the Florent Schmitt Fallacy:

*The Rite of Spring is a masterpiece.

*The Rite of Spring was greeted with hostility. Therefore:

*Any work that is greeted with hostility is a masterpiece.

Novelty is frightening to some listeners, no doubt, and anger is often the result. But to just as many others, novelty is a thrill and a draw. Looking over the history of first performances, there seems to be about a 50/50 ratio of audience success to audience failure. It's OK for a piece of music to be liked upon first hearing; but it's better for it to earn the listener's affection over time, which might necessitate a little initial shock. Idealism is a good thing, but so is presenting your message in a compelling, attention-holding form (if you can't persuade a listener to listen, you can't do anything else). A composer's energy is wasted if his music demonstrates an overt contempt toward the ticket-buyer—but box-office butt-kissing is a much more reliable guarantee of aesthetic mediocrity than booing and hissing are indicators of quality. Insofar as The Rite persuaded composers to believe the above Fallacy, and insofar as this attitude has damaged the composer-listener rapport in the tumultuous decades since (but were earlier composers and audiences ever as comfy-cozy as we assume?), then Stravinsky has a lot to answer for.

 
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