This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The event in Paris on May 29, 1913, was a watershed moment for classical music, an evening of seemingly cacophonous noise that redefined our human character, presaged the barbarous decades to come, and reshaped our understanding of nature. Indeed, the performance — first presented as a ballet — was so pivotal in the history of Western culture and thought that everyone with even a modest interest in personal insight and cultural awareness should hear and feel the transformational power of its music.
The Rite of Spring was certainly a surprise for its first audience. They were expecting something elegant, refined, traditional, melodic, sonorous and civilized. Instead they got the opposite. The dancers moved like automatons and insects, gyrating and jerking, twisting and pouncing like primitive creatures possessed by atavistic urges. The music was often visceral and penetrating, a piercing staccato of dissonance that seemed alien. But it also seemed uncomfortably familiar, as if it were speaking to an unacknowledged self or awakening a suppressed awareness that even our deepest honesty was afraid to reveal.
Accounts of the audience’s reaction varied widely, possibly because the chaos and confusion were just too much to record as a coherent description. By general agreement, the first performance provoked a near riot. Booing and shouting nearly drowned the sound of the huge orchestra, forcing the choreographer to rush on stage to beat the tempo so the dancers could continue. Throwable objects rained down on the performers. One man in the audience was reported to be using his fists to beat the rhythm on the head of the gentleman in front of him. The police were called. One Parisian critic called it “a wreckage of the past, crawling with and eaten away by familiar and monstrous forms of life.” So the first performance of The Rite of Spring struggled to its conclusion and into the annals of cultural history.
Indeed, The Rite of Spring was revolutionary. Granted, other composers had been experimenting with similar atonality before Stravinsky’s creation. A year later, after the shock of the premier had subsided and a more accepting audience attended the next performance, it was received with great applause and cheers. Stravinsky then spent another 34 years editing the score into an orchestral piece, the form in which it is now performed for audiences who are more accepting of its declaration and prescience.
And The Rite of Spring was prescient. The First World War broke out a year after its premier. Then a series of international crises that followed for the next half century, underscoring the dark brutality lurking just beneath humanity’s facade of respectability. Perhaps Stravinsky was part of an artistic awareness that the Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan referred to as an “Early Warning System”.
If Stravinsky revealed something of our previously unacknowledged character, he also revealed something about nature. It is not, as the Romantic poets and philosophers thought, a wise, maternalistic and benign force that is worthy of worship. Instead, it is primitive, wild, powerful, impersonal and amoral. It is also impartial and dispassionate. The declaration in The Rite of Spring is that we are as much a part of it as it is a part of us. We are not necessarily considerate, rational or predictable. The rules of our co-existence with nature are unequivocal and unforgiving. We either live by them or we risk the retribution of consequences that are issued with the cool and simple indifference of a cause having an effect. In the dance of life, other creatures from microbes and virus to elephants and whales must also follow the same steps to survive.
This is the grande ballet, the biggest and most complicated dance on the planet. It is a rite not just of spring but of every season, whether it be hot or cold, wet or dry. Everything is choreographed in incredible detail, and all the dancers are required to know the movements or they perish in the induced frenzy, trampled by the gyrations, jerks, twists and pounces of the others. The steps are intricate and demanding. The punishment is swift and uncaring.
Such a view of nature is sobering. But it is also realistic — perhaps honest to the point of being painful. The Rite of Spring in Stravinsky’s rendition is not the Divine Garden given to humanity for our dominion and use. It is not a hierarchy of lower to higher or inferior to superior, a decreed order where some are designed to serve and others are designed to be served. Instead, it is a place of species equality where each plays its role in a great and sustaining system that requires all the multiplicity of its components to function well. Every part is subject to the same rules of physics, chemistry and biology. The sound may seem discordant, the tonality grating. But the chaos is order, the cacophony is harmony, and the primitive is sophisticated. Remove parts, tamper with the design, and the great semblance of order merely reorganizes itself without hesitation, without caring for consequences.
As Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was attempting to illustrate in music and ballet a hundred years ago, nature is neither humane nor sympathetic. We should know this in our bones because — since our inception as conscious and purposeful beings — we have been struggling to safeguard our interests against the impersonal threats of disease, inclemency, hardship and surprise. For the most part, we have been remarkably successful in our efforts. What is now becoming obvious, however, is that this success has made us important choreographers in the grande ballet of life on Earth. Our great performance on the planet’s stage now depends very much on the way we design the steps. Too many wrong moves and the result could be memorable chaos.