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Stravinsky recalls the premiere of The Rite of Spring

May 29, 2013


Today marks the 100th anniversary of the premiere of one of the essential musical compositions of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Below, from Stravinsky’s autobiography (Chroniques de ma vie, 1936), is a description of that notorious evening (the date of which Stravinsky misremembered). Historians warn us that Stravinsky’s remembrance of his appraisal of Nijinsky’s choreography 25 years after the event, and nearly 2 decades after Nijinsky went insane, might be unreliable.

I have now come to the spring season of 1913 in Paris, when the Russian Ballet inaugurated the opening of the Théatre des Champs-Elysees. It began with a revival of L’Oiseau de Feu, and the Sacre du Printemps was given on May 28 at the evening performance. The complexity of my score had demanded a great number of rehearsals, which Monteux had conducted with his usual skill and attention. As for the actual performance, I am not in a position to judge, as I left the auditorium at the first bars of the prelude, which had at once evoked derisive laughter. I was disgusted. These demonstrations, at first isolated, soon became general, provoking counter-demonstrations and very quickly developing into a terrific uproar. During the whole performance I was at Nijinsky’s side in the wings. He was standing on a chair, screaming “sixteen, seventeen, eighteen”—they had their own method of counting to keep time. Naturally the poor dancers could hear nothing by reason of the row in the auditorium and the sound of their own dance steps. I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes, for he was furious, and ready to dash on to the stage at any moment and create a scandal. Diaghileff kept ordering the electricians to turn the lights on or off, hoping in that way to put a stop to the noise. That is all I can remember about that first performance. Oddly enough, at the dress rehearsal, to which we had, as usual, invited a number of actors, painters, musicians, writers, and the most cultured representatives of society, everything had gone off peacefully, and I was very far from expecting such an outburst.

Now, after the lapse of more than twenty years, it is naturally difficult for me to recall in any detail the choreography of the Sacre without being influenced by the admiration with which it met in the set known as the avant-garde —ready, as always, to welcome as a new discovery anything that differs, be it ever so little, from the déjà vu. But what struck me then, and still strikes me most, about the choreography, was and is Nijinsky’s lack of consciousness of what he was doing in creating it. He showed therein his complete inability to accept and assimilate those revolutionary ideas which Diaghileff had made his creed, and obstinately and industriously strove to inculcate. What the choreography expressed was a very labored and barren effort rather than a plastic realization flowing simply and naturally from what the music demanded. How far it all was from what I had desired!

In composing the Sacre I had imagined the spectacular part of the performance as a series of rhythmic mass movements of the greatest simplicity which would have an instantaneous effect on the audience, with no superfluous details or complications such as would suggest effort. The only solo was to be the sacrificial dance at the end of the piece. The music of that dance, clear and well defined, demanded a corresponding choreography — simple and easy to understand. But there again, although he had grasped the dramatic significance of the dance, Nijinsky was incapable of giving intelligible form to its essence, and complicated it either by clumsiness or lack of understanding. For it is undeniably clumsy to slow down the tempo of the music in order to compose complicated steps which cannot be danced in the tempo prescribed. Many choreographers have that fault, but I have never known any who erred in that respect to the same degree as Nijinsky.

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