Art in Progress: A Philosophical Response to the End of the Avant-Garde

By Maarten Doorman; Sherry Marx | Go to book overview

4

On Making Revolution

`The little Modernsky'

On 28 May 1913, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring premièred in the new Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, performed by Diaghilev's famous Ballets Russes, with Nijinsky in the lead role. Stravinsky later recalled the first performance of this much talked-about composition:

The piece had hardly begun when a jeer broke out, and I cannot judge the performance because I left the concert hall after the first few measures of the Prelude. I was furious. These manifestations, which initially occurred only now and again, were now common. Counter reactions arose, and a terrible commotion ensued. During the entire performance, I stayed with Nijinksy. He stood on a chair, screaming with all his might at the dancers: `sixteen, seventeen, eighteen ...,' because they obviously had their own way of keeping time. Yet the poor dancers didn't hear a word he said owing to the tumult in the hall and their own pounding feet. I had to grab Nijinsky by his clothes, because he was beyond himself and could jump off the stage at any moment and cause a scandal. Diaghilev for his part ordered the electricians to turn the lights on and off in the hall in an attempt to calm the tumult.1

In the ensuing months, the proponents and the skeptical critics of this highly controversial work quickly agreed on one thing: the daring dissonance, the previously unheard-of shifts in rhythm, and the explosive contrasts in the Rite of Spring had changed music history forever. It seemed as if Stravinsky would become one of the most important innovators of twentieth-century music.

From the First World War on, however, Stravinsky moved in a direction of what came to be known as neo-classicism, where he gradually returned to old composers, from J.S. Bach to Rossini, and increasingly drew on the classical harmony of the previous two centuries. From then on, the musical assault on traditional tonality would be pursued by others, primarily Schönberg.

Stravinsky protested against the neo-classical label imposed on him. But, despite all his attempts in later publications to emphasize and clarify the consistent development of his work, the leading critics labeled him as reactionary or, at best, dismissed him as `old-fashioned,' the way Dutch composer Willem Pijper had described him in his survey of the history of modern music. Pijper believed all there was to say about Stravinsky was that `the compositions that

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