Ninety-six years ago today, a riot broke out among audience members witnessing the premiere of a piece that changed classical-music history.
The composer, Igor Stravinsky, was horrified; the impresario, Serge Diaghilev, was delighted.
Feelings ran high at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris that night, from the very opening bars of Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” as choreographed by the great Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.
The audience was expecting a ballet according to the straitlaced standards of the day. What they got was a pagan spectacle with savage, pulsing rhythms, dissonances and jerky dancing. Boos and catcalls escalated to slaps and fisticuffs. The brouhaha was so loud, according to reports from the scene, that the dancers couldn’t hear the music pounding up out of the orchestra pit.
Diaghilev flipped the house lights on and off hoping to quell the disturbance, while Nijinsky yelled a beat-count from the wings to give the dancers something to dance to. Gendarmes arrived and hauled out some of the most obstreperous patrons between parts I and II, but the mania broke out again following that intermission.
Stravinsky, writing about the incident later — after “The Rite of Spring” was safely recognized as a classic — said the incident left him deeply dismayed. But buzzmeister Diaghilev famously remarked,
“It was just what I wanted.”
On June 4, the Library of Congress will open an exhibition in the Music Reading Room in the James Madison Memorial Building in Washington, D.C., commemorating the 100th anniversary of Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russes.
The Library holds significant items from the music and papers of Igor Stravinsky (who wrote his piece “Apollon-Musagete” on a commission from the Library’s patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge) and Serge Diaghilev.