The Rite of Spring Riot of 1913

Igor Stravinsky Unforgettable Ballet

gor Stravinsky conducting, Russian-born composer, c1920.
Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In May 1913, Igor Stravinsky debuted his ballet The Rite of Spring. Though it is one of Stravinsky's most famous works, his creation was first met with harsh criticism, negative reviews, and... a riot. Watch this YouTube performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring Ballet.

The Creation of The Rite of Spring

A few years prior to 1910, Stravinsky began flirting with the idea and music of The Rite of Spring ballet to premiere with Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company.

Whether or not the music came before the story/setting or visa versa (there are conflicting statements by Stravinsky himself), we do know that by 1910, Stravinsky met with Russian expert Nicholas Roerich to discuss ancient pagan rituals. Together, they came up with the working title "The Great Sacrifice." After taking a year hiatus to finish his ballet Petrushka, Stravinsky resumed work on The Rite of Spring with Roerich, and by July 1911, the pair had completed a working draft of the ballet's structure within a few days, changing its title to Vesna sviashchennaia (Russian) or Holy Spring. However, the work's French translation Le Sacre du printemps (English: The Rite of Spring) is what stuck. According to Stravinsky's journals, he returned to his home in Ukraine and wrote two movements before deciding to move to Clarens, Switzerland a month later, where he completed the ballet's first part and drafted the second.

Stravinsky stopped work on the ballet by Spring of 1912, and enjoyed a nice break, even taking a trip to Bayreuth, Germany with Sergei Diaghilev to attend a performance of Richard Wagner's opera, Parsifal. Stravinsky returned to Clarens, Switzerland during the Fall season to finish The Rite of Spring - as signed on his orchestral score, he completed it on March 8, 19

The Cause and Events of The Rite of Spring Riot

Stravinsky debuted The Rite of Spring Ballet at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 29, 1913, to an audience accustomed to the grace, elegance, and the traditional music of "conventional" ballets, i.e. Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Opposition to Stravinsky's work literally happened within the first few minutes of the piece as members of the audience booed loudly in response to the inharmonic notes accompanying the unrecognizable bassoon's opening solo. What's more, the work's unconventional music, sharp and unnatural choreography (dancers danced with bent arms and legs and would land on the floor so hard their internal organs would shake), and Russian pagan setting, failed to win over the majority of the audience. It should hardly come as a surprise given the ballet's thematic content. The ballet's title and subtitle alone hint that something darker lurks behind the velvet theater curtains: The Rite of Spring: Picture of Pagan Russia in Two Parts. The story centers around ancient Russian tribes and their celebration of Spring. They then offer a sacrifice to their gods, choosing a young girl who is forced to dance to death.

As the ballet progressed, so did the audience's discomfort.

Those in favor of Stravinsky's work argued with those in opposition. The arguments eventually turned to brawls and police had to be notified. They arrived at intermission and successfully calmed the angry crowd (yes, the show wasn't even half way over before people were throwing punches). As the second half commenced, police were unable to keep the audience under control and rioting resumed.  Stravinsky was so taken aback by the audience's reaction, he fled the scene before the show was over.

The Rite of Spring in the 21st Century

Just like Beethoven's 9th Symphony changed the future of symphony composition, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring changed the future of ballet. Up to that point, ballet was beautiful, elegant, and charming. As I mentioned before, audiences were accustomed to seeing and hearing works like Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty.

Stravinsky's Rite of Spring introduced new concepts in music, dance, and story. Today, it is considered to be a milestone in the history of ballet. It has become a regular work in many ballet companies' repertoires. The music has been used extensively in film, television, and radio, for example, Disney's Fantasia. It has also inspired composers like John Williams (Star Wars) and Jerry Goldsmith (Outland).