Screaming is not unusual behavior at rock concerts, but more decorum is expected at a classical music performance.
Yet, much booing, hissing, and catcalling erupted after the world premiere of a ballet set to Igor Stravinsky’s musical score, The Rite of Spring, the theme of which is a pagan sacrifice. Held at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris on May 29, 1913, the concert ended in a brawl, with broken canes and crushed fedoras reflecting the audience’s outrage at both the music and choreography.
We don’t know whether Stravinsky (1882–1971) intended for his work to be so scandalous, but we do know that the Russian composer, whose 137th birthday is on June 17, fled the scene when the rioting started.
It is fair to assume that he was startled by the audience reaction, especially since his two previous works, The Firebird and Petrushka, won both critical and popular acclaim.
But let’s go back 105 years to that eventful Parisian night. According to eyewitness reports, the brawl was sparked by the “pulsating rhythms” and unusual choreography that were too avant-garde for the early 20th-century music patrons accustomed to the elegance and grace of classical ballets.
Hours after the premiere, French composer Claude Debussy noted that Stravinsky’s new score was “extraordinarily wild.”
That incident is still remembered as one of the most shocking in the annals of musical history, one that “created such a furor that it shattered everyone’s expectations,” according to an NPR article. “Almost no musical work has had such a powerful influence or evoked as much controversy.”
But with changing sensibilities and more acceptance of new music styles, The Rite of Spring is now considered as a musical masterpiece, and Stravinsky as one of the most original composers of the 20th century.
He might not have been a rock star, but he still managed to rock the music world of his time.