The Rite of Spring

by Pericles Lewis

The first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in Paris on May 29, 1913 was one of the most famous episodes in the public’s hostile reaction to modern primitivism. The music to The Rite of Spring dispensed with traditional harmony in favor of rhythmic repetition of very short musical phrases in a variety of meters. The ballet, performed by the Ballets Russes of Diaghilev and Nijinsky, attempted to recreate ancient pagan rituals, associated with life on the Russian steppes, and ended with a maiden dancing herself to death as a sacrifice to the gods. The sacrificed maiden, like Gauguin’s native women or Picasso’s demoiselles, represents the primitive female as a conduit to sacred power. In Stravinsky’s work, her death made the violence implicit in Picasso’s broken forms literal.[1] According to the widely varying reports of the ballet’s premiere, one faction of the audience hissed and booed so loudly that the music could not be heard. The defenders of the ballet fought back, and a near-riot ensued. Nijinsky himself was already notorious for having performed, the previous year, a dance in Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun that ended in simulated orgasm.[2]

  1. Christopher Butler, Early Modernism: Literature, Music, and Painting in Europe, 1900-1916 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 116.
  2. This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis's Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 75-76.