Who wrote this fiendish Rite of Spring,
What right had he to write the thing,
Against our helpless ears to fling
Its crash, cling, clang, bing, bang, being?
And then to call it 'Rite of Spring'
The season when on joyous wing
The birds harmony's in everything!
He who would write the Rite of Spring
If I be right, by right should swing!
- Boston Herald, after local premiere
Of course it is the writer of this memorable couplet who is swinging in the breeze of history, known only for his poem.
- The following piece by Ward Botsford, grammy award-winning classical music producer:
Ah to have been in Paris on the evening of May 29 in 1913!
Music was in the air and the premiere of another of Igor Stravinsky's ballets for the Diaghilev Ballet Company. L'Oiseau de feu was a big success as was Petrouchka and most of the audience was looking forward to another success.
How could it not be?
After all, a young - thirty-one at the time - composer, the Impresario to end all Impresarios, the Nijinsky not only dancing but choreographing, a young conductor named Monteux conducting…
What could Go Wrong?
It was a Scandal of the kind that Paris loved!
After the absurdity high bassoon solo that beings the piece Camille Saint-Saëns stalking out - not muttering as some have said but very loudly indeed - says, "What instrument was that?"
After that things got so bad that Monteux couldn't hear himself think. Stravinsky escaped with his body whole but his psyche and spirit tarnished.
And the audience - who apparently were equally divided - into the Pro and Anti claque, the Pro led by Ravel and the Anti by whoever could scream the loudest.
Let it be said: It was not precisely a triumph.
Now eight-eight years later we can look back complacently at Le Sacre and say to ourselves, "If I had been there I'd have been on the side of Ravel!"
But would you? I wonder.
As a subset: A few years later when the work was decided by the establishment to be a success everyone said that they had been there and had sided with Ravel. If all that said that were there the performance must have been held in a football stadium, not the modest Theatre des Champs-Elysées.
If a poll was taken the probable cause of the disaster - if indeed it was a disaster! - We would probably blame the conservative audience. But it is doubtful if this is true. Let's look at the various protagonists and form our own opinions.
Very much ex post facto the composer says he expected at least civility and even understanding. But as a knowledgeable musician Stravinsky must have know that while what he had written was very good - he states that volubly - it was also likely to raise hackles. After all he knew who was in the audience and it is not without reason that Saint-Saëns, Schmitt and the like could have been planted to purposely cause a fracas. Stravinsky was a very canny man of the theatre - His theatre. Listen to those opening bassoon notes. Against the music of Saint-Saëns and Schmitt they are preposterously high and beyond the true range of Mickey Mouse. Is it not just possible that Stravinsky got out of the Premiere of Le Sacre exactly what he wanted; a success du scandal?
When we say 'Impresario' we are saying Opportunist in the same breath. Diaghilev was certainly that and a great deal more as well. Not exactly a musician nor even a man with the best of taste he too was a guy who made the most of his opportunities. In short it is not had to imagine that he knew what was a' brew in Paris that May night. And having said that, who was to blame, Him, or Stravinsky for that matter?
"Let's change the world!" they thought and so they did.
The conductor was only thirty-five and our heart must go out to him. He knew the work had Masterpiece written all over it but at the debut he could not even hear the orchestra. What calamity! And by-the-by: That orchestra; how good was it? Looking at notes of the era by intelligent critics and musicians: Not very good. There were reputed to have been many snide remarks from the players about, "This piece of merde!"
And why not? There is ample record from over fifteen years later that orchestras were not even then geared for this kind of music. Listen to Monteux's progressive recordings of the score with an unnamed Parisian orchestra, the San Francisco band, nothing less than the Boston Symphony and L'Orchestre de la Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris. The first Paris recording from 1929 tells us a lot about Monteux … and a lot about the orchestra which is not complimentary. Then we work our way up the decibel scale to the Maestro's last recording with the Conservatoire from about 1953.
Actually recording Le Sacre really does not work. It is a piece too big to encompass in any home. It needs air and lots of it to breathe. As a for instance of that Leonard Bernstein - who I confess is not one of my favorite conductors - recorded the work twice, once with the LSO and once with the NYPO. Neither is satisfactory but I was in Avery Fischer when he conducted - with Stravinsky present - the best Le Sacre I am ever likely to hear. Why was it best? I think because he rendered it hoof from nail.
If a villain must be found here he is. The choreography was - to put it ingenuously - ghastly from all reports and modern attempts at reconstruction reinforce this belief. The fabled dancer struck out decidedly. Didn't Stravinsky and Diaghilev realize this? One wonders where they were at rehearsals.
Musical Masterpiece Le Sacre is, but ballet music it is not. There has never been a successful choreography of the work in the ensuing years.
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