Stravin­sky’s bal­let fa­mously started a riot in Paris, but the mu­si­cal af­ter­shocks are equally fas­ci­nat­ing

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Stephen Walsh

Some­body once said that if ev­ery­one who claimed to have been at the first per­for­mance of Stravin­sky’s The Rite of Spring had ac­tu­ally been there, you’d have needed Wem­b­ley sta­dium to fit them all in. Con­versely, the fa­mous riot has been so an­thol­o­gised that it has now be­come chic in aca­demic cir­cles to ques­tion whether it ac­tu­ally hap­pened. Gil­lian Moore is not chic in this sense, but sim­ply of­fers a stylish and con­cise ac­count of the event, com­plete with the fisticuffs and cat­calls, the in­sults and gen­eral racket, the sup­posed ar­rival of the po­lice, the ter­ri­fied dancers des­per­ately count­ing the sevens and elevens of com­plex mu­sic they could barely hear. Re­cent events in Paris have re­minded us of the pe­cu­liar ge­nius of the French for semi-or­gan­ised vi­o­lent demon­stra­tions, and there’s not much doubt that some­thing of the kind took place that May night of 1913 in the new, open-plan Théâtre des Champ­sÉlysées, though without the tear gas or the blaz­ing cars. In art as in pol­i­tics, France has al­ways had its un­der­ground, and the Rite dis­tur­bance was al­most cer­tainly pre-planned, per­haps de­lib­er­ately pro­voked by the pub­lic­ity-con­scious Sergei Di­aghilev, but then, as hap­pens with évène­ments, got out of hand.

What­ever it was ex­actly, the riot was what made The Rite of Spring fa­mous, long be­fore any­one had heard and seen it apart from a few thou­sand Parisians and Lon­don­ers (the two early Rus­sian per­for­mances were con­certs). But it wasn’t what made it great. Rowdy first per­for­mances do not a mas­ter­piece make. Vic­tor Hugo’s play Her­nani is sup­posed to have ig­nited the 1830 July rev­o­lu­tion in Paris, but who ever stages it now, ex­cept in the form of Verdi’s opera? The Rite has had a very dif­fer­ent pos­ter­ity, and it’s one of the strengths of Moore’s finely il­lus­trated mono­graph that it sup­plies chap­ter and verse, not only on the score’s back­ground and artis­tic con­text but also by Gil­lian Moore, Head of Zeus, £18.99 on the amaz­ing sub­se­quent reach of mu­sic whose an­ces­try was so es­o­teric that Stravin­sky could claim it had vir­tu­ally no tra­di­tion be­hind it and had come to him out of the blue.

Thanks mainly to the work of the US scholar Richard Taruskin, we now un­der­stand that Stravin­sky’s early bal­lets, The Fire­bird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring it­self, were a per­fectly log­i­cal devel­op­ment of 19th­cen­tury Rus­sian folk­lore na­tion­al­ism. The com­posers of the Mighty Hand­ful ( Moguchaya Kuchka ), who in­cluded Stravin­sky’s teacher Niko­lai Rim­skyKor­sakov, had been bril­liant am­a­teurs, but Rim­skyKor­sakov him­self had turned pro­fes­sional as a con­ser­va­toire teacher, and in so do­ing pro­vided a model of how a slightly crazy, off-the-wall Rus­sian­ism might dis­ci­pline it­self into a large in­ter­na­tional force. I think Moore is mis­taken in claim­ing that Stravin­sky didn’t know how to write his mu­sic down be­fore study­ing with Rim­sky; but it’s true that, like the kuchka, he lacked proper the­o­ret­i­cal train­ing.

Moore, di­rec­tor of mu­sic at the South­bank Cen­tre in Lon­don, would be well able to write a mu­si­cal study of the Rite. But this book, de­lib­er­ately, is not that. In­stead, she of­fers good sum­maries of the mu­sic’s es­sen­tial innovations – its mon­tage-like ar­chi­tec­ture (of which Stravin­sky was rightly proud), its har­mony built up ver­ti­cally out of stan­dard chords that hap­pen not (ac­cord­ing to the rule book) to be­long to­gether, its jagged rhythms that emerge from the chang­ing lengths of the melodic phrases. But I could do without her blow-by-blow ac­count of the score, a sort of mu­si­cal Rough Guide for the faint-hearted; some will find it help­ful, but it’s an odd thought that more than a cen­tury af­ter its first per­for­mance and af­ter 150 stage pro­duc­tions and thou­sands of con­cert per­for­mances, such a nar­ra­tive should still be thought nec­es­sary.

More riv­et­ing is her ac­count of what she calls the af­ter­shocks: the in­creas­ingly fan­tas­tic bal­let pro­duc­tions; the con­tra­dic­tory in­ter­views with con­duc­tors – some say­ing no in­ter­pre­ta­tion is re­quired, oth­ers insisting, with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, that The Rite of Spring “must never be nor­mal”; the com­posers, from Prokofiev to An­driessen and be­yond, who have (let’s be hon­est) stolen from The Rite; and not least the jazz and pop mu­si­cians who have in­cor­po­rated frag­ments, even whole chunks, of it in their work. There’s some­thing cu­ri­ously pleas­ing about Char­lie Parker quot­ing the open­ing bas­soon melody in “Salt Peanuts”, or jazz trio the Bad Plus mak­ing a com­plete ver­sion of the bal­let (among other Stravin­sky ar­range­ments, not men­tioned here). Frank Zappa’s ob­ses­sion with Stravin­sky is well known, but I had no idea how much of it found its way into his mu­sic. “I feel like tak­ing my clothes off, danc­ing to The Rite of Spring,” Neil Ten­nant sings on the Pet Shop Boys sin­gle “I Wouldn’t Nor­mally Do This Kind of Thing”, though the song it­self, per­haps re­as­sur­ingly, shows no traces of Stravin­sky.

Stephen Walsh’s De­bussy is pub­lished by Faber. To buy The Rite of Spring for £16.71 go to guardian­book­shop. com or call 0330 333 6846.

The Rite of Spring

The Rite of Spring: The Mu­sic of Moder­nity

Ri­otous as­sem­blage Dancers in the 1913 Paris pro­duc­tion of

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