From le Sacre to Les Noces: Primitivism and the Changing Face of Modernity1

By Berman, Nancy | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

From le Sacre to Les Noces: Primitivism and the Changing Face of Modernity1


Berman, Nancy, Canadian University Music Review


From the turn of the century until the First World War, the emerging modernist movement in European arts and literature was, ironically, characterized by its disapproval of modernity.2 The early modernists, according to Charles Taylor, protested "a world dominated by technology, standardization, the decay of community, mass society, and vulgarization";3 they were overcome with a sense that Europe was reaching the end of an epoch, the end, as Thomas Mann wrote in his novel The Magic Mountain, of "the bourgeois, humanistic, liberal epoch, which was born at the Renaissance and came to power with the French Revolution, and whose last convulsive twitchings and manifestations of life we are now beholding."4 Modern society was perceived to be increasingly and tragically estranged from the earth; human culture was becoming, in the words of the Russian poet Alexander Blok, "ever more a thing of iron, of machines; more and more it resembles a gigantic laboratory in which vengeance upon stikhiya [elemental spontaneity] is made ready; science grows so as to enslave the earth . . ."5 Mann and Blok were among the many who echoed the sentiments pervading cultural life at the beginning of the century: Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf also emphasized in various ways the sense of disenchantment, decay, and degeneracy prevalent at the time, as did artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, Vlaminck, Matisse, Kandinsky, Kirchner, and Klee, among many others. AU of these writers and artists turned at some point in their careers to the primitive, searching for a revitalizing force for art, for psychological and cultural beginnings and origins, for a means to transcend Western degeneracy; what these artists and writers ultimately found, however, was themselves, both as individuals and as members of modern European society.

Primitivism erupted into the modernist vanguard with unprecedented frenzy on 29 May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. The premiere of Stravinsky ' s Le sacre du printemps marked, to borrow Lionel Trilling's phrase, the "canonization of the primal, non-ethical energies" in music and dance.6 The critical uproar following the premiere has become part of musicological lore. Indeed, the legendary riot and subsequent flurry of activity in the daily and periodical press contribute to our present-day reception of the work as a landmark of modernity, a monolith of twentieth-century music. The reception history of Le sacre holds more than mythological value, however; it clearly reveals the significance of the work's perceived primitivism within the early modern movement.7

If the Ballets russes' s production of Le sacre provided passage to a land of primitive ritual, its Parisian audience approached this image of pagan Russia as an Other against which it could assert or question its own identity, and onto which it could project its own fears and desires.8 Thus, in the press, the "primitive" Russians were repeatedly aligned with nature, being described as animalistic, devoid of reason, corporeal, violent, unable to restrain their impulses, while the French were always aligned with culture and civilization, with centuries of experience, with reason, wisdom, restraint, and finesse. For the more nationalistic critics, these binarisms served to confirm French cultural superiority; for the progressive, avant-garde, modernist critics, the Russians' youthful, uninhibited traits served to foreground, and thus question, the degeneracy and overly cerebral aspects of French culture.9

In this article I will argue that the function of the primitivist aesthetic in modern French culture shifted dramatically from the pre- to the post-war period. Whereas the primitivism of Le sacre was understood by its contemporaries to be radical, excessive, even prophetic and apocalyptic, the primitivism of Les noces was perceived to some extent as a manifestation of both the classicist "call to order" and the mechanistic aesthetic of the post-war period.

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