A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Stravinsky and Diaghilev Part 4

11 May 2012

Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Read Part 3


The théâtre des Champs-Élysées today — located on Avenue Montaigne in the 8th arrondissement — where the première of Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps took place on 29 May 1913.


You should have been at the première of Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring).  It was a riot.


It seems that the primal impulses of the audience were awakened by the ancient Slavic ritual that was taking place on stage.  And certainly the fierce Gauls were not to be outdone by the Scythians in the primitiveness department, so they enacted their own brutal, prehistoric dance in the galleries.

Most likely you weren’t born yet, but if you had been at the théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913, you would have witnessed hand-to-hand audience combat, the likes of which hadn’t taken place since the 1830 performance of Daniel Auber’s opera, La Muette de Portici, in Brussels.  That earlier performance, alas, ignited a political revolution; this one, merely a musical revolution.


A set design by Nicholas Roerich (1874 – 1947) for the première of Le sacre du printemps, 1913.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


As the conductor Pierre Monteux recalled, “The audience remained quiet for the first two minutes.”

That was long enough for the composer Camille Saint-Saëns, because he stood up and walked out.  He indicated that he didn’t care at all for the bassoon part, which had wandered into the wrong neighborhood, register-wise.

“Then came boos and catcalls from the gallery, soon after from the lower floors,” Monteux continued.

Impresario Gabriel Astruc, the theater’s owner, tried to reason with the audience.  "First listen," he pleaded, "then boo!"

“One of my bass players,” Monteux later reported, “told me that many a gentleman’s shiny top hat or soft fedora was ignominiously pulled by an opponent down over his eyes and ears, and canes were brandished like menacing implements of combat all over the theater.”

The conductor then went into more unpleasant detail:  "Neighbors began to hit each other over the head with fists, canes or whatever came to hand.  Soon this anger was concentrated against the dancers, and then, more particularly, against the orchestra, the direct perpetrator of the musical crime.  Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on.  The end of the performance was greeted by the arrival of gendarmes. Stravinsky had disappeared through a window backstage, to wander disconsolately along the streets of Paris.”

Igor Stravinsky himself related what took place before he disappeared through that window: “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 onto the stage at any moment . . . Diaghilev kept ordering the electricians to turn the lights on and off, hoping in that way to put a stop to the noise.  That is all I can remember about the first performance . . .”

Some of the initial reviews weren’t that favorable, either.  The Musical Times commented after the work’s London première that, "The music of Le Sacre du Printemps baffles verbal description.  To say that much of it is hideous as sound is a mild description.  There is certainly an impelling rhythm traceable.  Practically it has no relation to music at all as most of us understand the word."

Another reviewer called the work, "Le massacre du printemps."

So, how is it that this work came to be considered wholesome children’s music a quarter century later (in Disney’s Fantasia — you know, the part with the dinosaurs), and eventually memed its way into a Jaco Pastorius solo on Heavy Weather?

Today, the thinking that led to the riot that took place at the première of Le Sacre du Printemps seems almost . . . quaint.

Following the success of L'oiseau de feu and Petrushka, Stravinsky began working in earnest on this, his third ballet to be commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev.  Later he would reflect, “Very little tradition lies behind Le sacre du printemps and no theory.  I had only my ear to help me . . .”

Well, there may have been a few hints regarding the impact that this new ballet might have on the audience.  On vacation in Venice, Stravinsky played the work at the piano for Sergei Diaghilev, whose Ballets russes would be choreographically interpreting Le sacre du printemps at its première.  When Diaghilev asked how long the dissonant patterns would continue, Stravinsky is reported to have replied, “Till the end, my dear!”


Caricature drawing by Jean Cocteau of Igor Stravinsky rehearsing Le sacre du printemps, 1913.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


At another point before the première, Stravinsky played a four-hand version of the ballet with the composer Claude Debussy.  Debussy would later write to Stravinsky, "Cela me hante comme un beau cauchemar"  — It haunts me like a beautiful nightmare.

Nevertheless, as Stravinsky prepared for the première, he was unwitting of what he would later call the scandale.  The composer Maurice Ravel arranged for Stravinsky to stay at the Splendid-Hôtel, right across the street from where Ravel was living at the time.  He wrote to Stravinsky that “De mon balcon je plongerai dans votre appartement (je n’en abuserai pas)," indicating that it was so close that Ravel could jump into Stravinsky’s apartment from his balcony — but not to worry, of course.


The former Splendid-Hôtel, on avenue Carnot near l‘Étoile, is where Stravinsky stayed during the première of Le sacre du printemps.


The théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the concert hall in which the performance was to take place, had just opened that year.  Ravel wrote to assure Stravinsky that, “l’acoustique du théâtre des Champs-Élysées est parfait" — the acoustics are perfect.  There were more than 130 rehearsals to get ready for the première.


The Art Deco lobby of the théâtre des Champs-Élysées has changed little.  The venue where the première of Le sacre du printemps had taken place was designed for new music, dance, and opera.


It is still debated today whether it was the music, the choreography, or the combination of the two that caused the riot.  Those who think it was the choreography support their claim by saying that the audience very likely couldn’t even hear the music in order to have a chance to form any opinion of it.  As Stravinsky once said, "Music must be listened to; it is not enough to hear it. A duck hears also."

Speaking of ducks, and this is actually relevant, there is a story told by Lydia Lopokova, a dancer with the Ballets russes at the time and later wife of the economist John Maynard Keynes (although I’m not sure if that technically makes her a Keynesian or not ).  She told the Radio Times, "Like many artists, Nijinsky had a weakness for clever toys.  I discovered in Chelsea a jointed wooden duck which was capable of assuming extraordinary expressive attitudes. I procured one for him and he was delighted with it.  The following year after The Rite of Spring [Le sacre du printemps] had been produced with his angular choreography one of his first questions to me was, 'Well, do you recognise it?' 'What?' 'Why, the duck of course,' and he told me that the most effective angular poses in the ballet originated with the duck."


A costume design by Nicholas Roerich for the première of Le sacre du printemps, 1913.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Another dancer, Marie Rambert, recollected that as she struck one the angular poses mentioned above, she heard someone in the gallery call out, "Un docteur … un dentiste … deux docteurs…," apparently thinking the dancer was in need of urgent medical attention.

Considering the duck factor, perhaps it was the choreography alone that started the riot.

Because, less than a year later, Le sacre du printemps returned to Paris in April 1914 under the baton of Pierre Monteux again.  This time it was performed as a concert work — without the ballet.  It was such a success that, after the performance, Stravinsky was carried on the shoulders of his cheering fans.

Diaghilev’s remark on this complete reversal was, "Our little Igor now requires police escorts out of his concerts, like a prize fighter."

After the Disney deal in 1940 (for which Stravinsky received $1,200 of the total $5,000 for the use of his music in the film; his agent got the rest), Pierre Monteux conducted Le sacre du printemps again in Paris in 1952.  The applause was exceptionally enthusiastic.  Monteux observed, "There was just as much noise the last time [at the première in 1913], but the tonality was different."

Back to the première.  A most poetic reflection was offered by music critic Emile Vuillermoz in Le Revue Musicale soon after Le sacre du printemps’ première: ”What is there cerebral and intellectual in Stravinsky’s superhuman force, in the athleticism of his brutal art that continually parries direct hits to the stomach and right hooks to the chin?  The music bends the men in rows, passes over the shoulders of the women like a hurricane over a wheat field, throws them to the winds, burns the soles of their feet.  Stravinsky’s dancers are not so much electrified by these rhythmic discharges, they are electrocuted . . .”

Then again, maybe it was the music that caused the riot.

Where else could those “right hooks to the chin” have come from?


The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (France)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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