Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Could a Rite of Spring riot happen today?

Today is the 100th anniversary of the premier of Igor Stravinsky's landmark ballet The Rite of Spring. This particular premiere has a great deal of historical significance, not just because of the music itself, but also because the of the riot that broke out in the audience in response to the ballet's intense rhythms, highly dissonant chord structures, and risque choreography.

I have seen the Rite performed twice. One thing that has not changed in 100 years is that the fact that this piece is totally ferocious. However, at both performances the audiences were very reserved and respectful, as you would expect from any classical music concert. I have wondered many times, “How is it that people were so moved (or disturbed) by the music that they would riot?” After all, such a thing would be highly unusual today. Were listeners in 1913 just more excitable? Did they listen to music in a fundamentally different way than we do today?

I think the answer to those questions is an emphatic no. A century after the Rite, dissonance in the classical context is no longer shocking. If one were to premiere a piece of classical music that was even louder and more dissonant than the Rite, it would not start a riot. But the riot was not about dissonance or rhythmic intensity itself, but rather, the alarm came from the newness. It would take a lot to shock us nowadays, but I think it can be done. Of course, fights break out at heavy metal shows all the time. You can't really say “well, that's metal, but Stravinsky was classical” because if you wanted to hear heavy music in 1913, Stravinsky was about as heavy as it got. The people moshing as metal shows today would probably have been the same people rioting at the premiere of the Rite 100 years ago.

One thing that often gets downplayed is the choreography, which was just as much a source of controversy as the music. Audiences were not used to seeing such a sexually charged ballet. When preparing for a performance of the Rite, Leonard Bernstein reportedly scolded the orchestra, saying, “Don't you get it? This piece is all about SEX!” Of course, sex appeal in music is not that something that has gone away in the last 100 years, and there has been a great deal spoken and written about the proper role of sexuality in music. In a way, Stravinsky was foreshadowing one of the great debates of 20th Century popular music.

Despite the riot, the Rite was not wholly rejected by the audience at its premiere. In fact, one of the leading causes of the disturbance was a dispute between supporters of the work and its detractors. Music itself may move people to passion, but even more importantly, people don't like being disagreed with. I'm sure many fights at metal shows have starting with one person saying “this band rocks” and another saying “this band sucks.” It was not really the music that made people want to riot, it was the debate. Of course, we have to give Stravinsky a great deal of credit for starting the conversation.

So could something similar happen today? Of course. Many things that were shocking at first become more accepted as time goes on. There are many people who hate metal, but few who would like to see it banned. Jazz was considered too rambunctious when it first came out, and now is one of the most respected of all musical styles. The Rite might not start a riot today, but that is why we need to create new music that will. We owe Stravinsky and others like him a great debt for having the courage and brilliance to start a controversy.

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