Igor Stravinsky was eight years old on January 15, 1890 when he saw Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty open at the Mariinski Theater in St. Petersburg, where his father was a performer. At the age of twenty-seven he was enlisted by Sergei Diaghilev to produce the orchestrations for a ballet of his own to be debuted in Paris. Stravinsky traveled to Paris to oversee the final rehearsals of The Firebird in 1910 and he would never again spend his entire year in Russia.
His compositions for Diaghilev’s company, Ballet Russe, established him as a world-class composer and remain today some of the most compelling music. His second ballet, Petrushka, debuted in 1911 and two years later the third, Le Sacre du Printempts (“The Rite of Spring”). Because his native Russia did not adhere to the 1886 Berne Convention on the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, Stravinsky was not always paid his due royalties upon the performance of these pieces, and his relationship with Ballet Russes turned sour over financial disputes.
Tchaikovsky’s three ballets cast an enormous shadow. If you can imagine a little skiffle group trying to make a name in Liverpool in the middle sixties you can imagine how Stravinsky may have felt as a Russian composer. While he had attended an historic debut as a boy, one of his ballets had an even more auspicious opening.
Le Sacre du Printempts was first performed in Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on May 29, 1913. A growing unease in the audience became a disturbance and led to the house lights being turned up and as many as forty people being ejected from the packed theater, as the audience hurled “everything available” at the orchestra. Although the work was finished in relative peace, early reviews were damning. Puccini attended the second performance and deemed it “the work of a madman.” It was rumored that Camille Saint-Saens walked out of the debut in disgust, although this was probably not true as there is not certain account of his having attended the performance.
Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography for the ballet was lost in the outbreak of World War I when it became impossible to maintain a touring ballet company. Le Sacre du Printempts has remained, regardless, a venerable classic, reinterpreted with gender reversals, eroticism, a feminist agenda, and once infused with punk rock and once with Soviet propaganda. Professional productions of the ballet to date number over 150.
(Le Sacre du Printempts, a concert arrangement conducted by the composer himself in 1960, performed by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra)
What was so extraordinarily for that Paris audience in 1913 is still there for us to experience today. Le Sacre du Printempts explores the range of our experience and expectations from the opening notes, performed in such an extreme range of the bassoon as to render it unrecognizable. Still, t’s hard to understand the shocking nature of Stravinsky’s use of polytonality in the introduction or the intensity of the “Abduction” dance’s driving rhythm in our post-punk, post-everything world. Nothing in Stravinsky’s music nears the extremities of 60s free jazz or the base crass-ness of the Sex Pistols. The ballet wasn’t even composed with the intention of shocking its audience.
Le Sacre du Printempts is probably Stravinsky’s most-recorded work, possibly even the most recorded 20th century composition by any classical composer. We recommend – if you can find them – either of the two Antal Dorati recordings. One was in 1954 with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, issued on Mercury, and the other with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1980. You will have a hard time finding a copy of the second, released by Decca, but it’s worth the search. Another recording worth the search is Colin Davis’ 1976 recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (from the Netherlands) – this may be the most “shocking” recording you can find on LP.
Stravinsky never abandoned ballet but never composed for dance on the level of his Ballet Russes work again. His 1928 work, Le baiser de la fée (“The fairy’s kiss”), was based on a Hans Christian Andersen story but really served as a tribute to Tchaikovsky, whose early piano melodies were incorporated.
Before parting from Ballet Russes, Stravinsky wrote an arrangement for the ballet he had seen as a boy. Portions of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty was, at that time, only published in the form of piano reduction, and Stravinsky had the opportunity to score Princess Aurora’s solo in the first scene in the second act (he also scored another scene from The Sleeping Beauty for the American Ballet Company many years later).