Igor Stravinsky's premiere of 'Le Sacre du printemps' at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées  

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The New York Times reports the sensational Rite premiere, nine days after the event [1]

Igor Stravinsky's premiere of Le Sacre du printemps took place on May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The avant-garde nature of the music and choreography caused a near-riot in the audience.

Contents

Background

Paris's Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was a new structure, which had opened on 2 April 1913 with a programme celebrating the works of many of the leading composers of the day. The theatre's manager, Gabriel Astruc, was determined to house the 1913 Ballets Russes season, and paid Diaghilev the large sum of 25,000 francs per performance, double what he had paid the previous year. Ticket sales for the evening, ticket prices being doubled for a premiere, amounted to 35,000 francs. The programme for 29 May 1913 also included Les Sylphides, Weber's Le Spectre de la Rose and Borodin's Polovtsian Dances.

At the time, a Parisian ballet audience typically consisted of two diverse groups: the wealthy and fashionable set, who would be expecting to see a traditional performance with beautiful music, and a "Bohemian" group who, the poet-philosopher Jean Cocteau asserted, would "acclaim, right or wrong, anything that is new because of their hatred of the boxes". Final rehearsals were held on the day before the premiere, in the presence of members of the press and assorted invited guests. According to Igor Stravinsky all went peacefully. However, the critic of L'Écho de Paris, Adolphe Boschot, foresaw possible trouble; he wondered how the public would receive the work, and suggested that they might react badly if they thought they were being mocked.

The evening itself

On the evening of the 29 May the theatre was packed: Gustav Linor reported, "Never...has the hall been so full, or so resplendent; the stairways and the corridors were crowded with spectators eager to see and to hear". The evening began with Les Sylphides, in which Nijinsky and Karsavina danced the main roles. The Rite followed; there is general agreement among eyewitnesses and commentators that the disturbances in the audience began during the Introduction, and grew into a crescendo when the curtain rose on the stamping dancers in "Augurs of Spring". Marie Rambert, who was working as an assistant to Nijinsky, recalled later that it was soon impossible to hear the music on the stage. In his autobiographical account, Stravinsky writes that the derisive laughter that greeted the first bars of the Introduction disgusted him, and that he left the auditorium to watch the rest of the performance from the stage wings ("I have never again been that angry"). The demonstrations, he says, grew into "a terrific uproar" which, along with the on-stage noises, drowned out the voice of Nijinsky who was shouting the step numbers to the dancers. The journalist and photographer Carl Van Vechten recorded that the person behind him got carried away with excitement, and "began to beat rhythmically on top of my head", though Van Vechten failed to notice this at first, his own emotion being so great.

Pierre Monteux believed that the trouble began when the two factions in the audience began attacking each other, but their mutual anger was soon diverted towards the orchestra: "Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on". Around forty of the worst offenders were ejected, either by the police or by the management. Through all the disturbances the performance continued without interruption. Things grew noticeably quieter during Part II, and by some accounts Maria Piltz's rendering of the final "Sacrificial Dance"[2] was watched in reasonable silence. At the end there were several curtain calls for the dancers, for Monteux and the orchestra, and for Stravinsky and Nijinsky before the evening's programme continued.

Press review

Among the more hostile press reviews was that of Le Figaro's critic, Henri Quittard, who called the work "a laborious and puerile barbarity" and added "We are sorry to see an artist such as M. Stravinsky involve himself in this disconcerting adventure". On the other hand Gustav Linor, writing in the leading theatrical magazine Comoedia, thought the performance was superb, especially that of Maria Piltz; the disturbances, while deplorable, were merely "a rowdy debate" between two ill-mannered factions. Emile Raudin, of Les Marges, who had barely heard the music, wrote: "Couldn't we ask M. Astruc ... to set aside one performance for well-intentioned spectators? ... We could at least propose to evict the female element". a view shared by the critic Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, who wrote: "The idea was excellent, but was not successfully carried out". Calvocoressi failed to observe any direct hostility to the composer—unlike, he said, the premiere of Debussy's Pelléas and Mélisande in 1902. Of later reports that the veteran composer Camille Saint-Saëns had stormed out of the premiere, Stravinsky observed that this was impossible; Saint-Saëns did not attend. Stravinsky also rejected Cocteau's story that, after the performance, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Diaghilev and Cocteau himself took a cab to the Bois de Boulogne where a tearful Diaghilev recited poems by Pushkin. Stravinsky merely recalled a celebratory dinner with Diaghilev and Nijinsky, at which the impresario expressed his entire satisfaction with the outcome. To Maximilien Steinberg, a former fellow-pupil under Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky wrote that Nijinsky's choreography had been "incomparable: with the exception of a few places, everything was as I wanted it".

See also




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