Long before teenage girls swooned and screamed during the Beatles concerts and even longer before rock performances drew loud and rowdy crowds, there was the famous—and infamous—uproar at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.
That particular riot broke out on May 29, 1913, at the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). The music for the ballet was written by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), whose 133rd birthday will be commemorated on June 17.
Not exactly an elegant or graceful ballet that the early 20th century audiences were accustomed to, The Rite of Spring’s music was unconventionally explosive (some critics called it “inharmonious”) and its choreography “unnatural” for a human body https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0xNo2894Fw.
By all accounts, the trouble began within the first few minutes as furious spectators started to boo the orchestra and dancers. Their outrage, according to eyewitness reports, was sparked by the sound of the bassoon, which was described as “ high and almost strangled.” The anger was further fueled by “fluttering and twittering woodwind sounds,” as well as “pulsating rhythms” that were not the norm at the time.
Very soon, fighting erupted and spread throughout the audience. Police (as well as doctors) were called but reportedly were unable to contain the riot. Stravinsky, who said before the premiere that he had high hopes for the new ballet, fled the scene.
Undoubtedly, The Rite of Spring was too avant-garde for the era, but it had eventually gained recognition as well as critical acclaim and was even featured in Walt Disney’s animated classic, “Fantasia.” Stravinsky, too, established a reputation as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century.
Interestingly, before The Rite’s controversial premiere, Stravinsky noted: “From all indications I can see that this piece is bound to ’emerge’ in a way that rarely happens.” Judging by the ballet’s Paris opening, he got that right!