Saturday, June 1, 2013

My column on the Rite of Spring

The following column will appear in the Norristown Times Herald on Sunday, June 2:

The day music changed: The 100th anniversary of ‘The Rite of Spring’
By Joe Barron

One hundred years ago this week, on May 29, 1913, a riot took place in Paris. The trigger was not the price of bread, or the arms race in Europe, or the constitutional right of citizens to carry concealed weapons.

It was the premiere of a ballet.

The hissing began at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées during the first few notes of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” as the bassoon softly wailed a Russian folk melody in an unnaturally high register.
“Then, when the curtain opened, a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down, the storm broke,” the composer recalled almost 50 years later. “Cries of ‘ta geule’ (shut up) came from behind me. I left the hall in a rage.”

Stravinsky’s driving score and Vaslav Nijinsky’s spastic choreography (which even Stravinsky didn’t like) turned everything patrons thought they knew about ballet on its head. Fistfights broke out, and, as Stephen Walsh says in his biography of the composer, “if the music was heard at all, it can only have been as a component of the general uproar.”

Controversy has continued for a century about just what the audience was reacting to, and what that reaction says about the relationship of the artist to his or her public. Certainly, Stravinsky meant no offense. If he had, he would have been delighted by the scandal, but, he continued in his memoir, “I have never again been that angry. The music was so familiar to me, I loved it, and I could not understand why people who had not yet heard it wanted to protest in advance.”

What is equally certain is that the music, if not the dancing, became the touchstone for everything that followed. It appears at the top of everyone’s list of most important works of the 20th century, at least everyone who still cares about that sort of thing. Nothing like it had ever been heard before — and this at a time when a lot of other people were writing the sort of stuff that had never been heard before — and nothing exactly like it has been heard since. Even Stravinsky himself couldn’t top it.
Within 10 years, he moved on to cooler, more elegant forms of expression, and none of the music he wrote afterward, great as much of it is, is performed nearly as frequently today.

In a point of local pride, the U.S. premiere took place in 1922, when Leopold Stokowski led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a concert performance. Ever since, American musicians have spoken of their first experience with the piece as a revelation: Men as different in age and outlook as Elliott Carter and Frank Zappa have said that hearing it made them want to become composers. Kids in conservatories are still imitating it, if only unconsciously.

For me, appreciation came only gradually. I first heard the “Rite” in high school, and I did not like it for a long time. In retrospect, I understand my aversion had less to do with the music than with my recording of it. It was Stravinsky’s own, a performance he conducted in his late 70s. It’s not bad, but it lacks fire, and it lags badly toward the end.

Then, one glorious evening listening to the radio, I heard the recording by George Solti and the Chicago Symphony, and I said, “OK, I get it now.” It remains my favorite version, and it is the one I listened to on the anniversary of the premiere.

This music has become a part of me, as it has for so many others, and friends have heard bits of it escape from me at odd moments, either as humming or as whistling. It’s an embarrassment, but embarrassment is the price I’m willing to pay for having my life enriched in such a profound way.

A lot has happened in the past hundred years to make a riot over a piece of music seem quaint. Yet the undiminished vitality of “The Rite of Spring” keeps a piece of that remote world alive like nothing else, and reminds us of the power of art to throw the world off its axis. The experience of that first night must have been overwhelming. Had I been there, I would have been frightened, too.

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