Monday, May 24, 2004

Riots in Paris

On NPR's Weekend Edition yesterday, a biography of George Anthiel began with a discussion of the premiere of Stravinsky's Le Sacré du Printemps in Paris on May 29, 1913. The apocryphal story is that Stravinsky's music was so primitive and dissonant that the audience rioted. This was supported by the critic Pierre Lalo:
The essential characteristic of Le Sacre du printemps is that is the most dissonant and the most discordant composition that has ever been written... Never before has the system and cult of the wrong note been applied with such industry, zeal, and obstinacy. (Le Temps, June 3, 1913).

However, most music historians now agree that the riots were caused not by the music, but by the riot-happy Parisians. Concert versions within the same year were received with great enthusiasm, and the open dress rehearsal had gone without incident the day before. Nizhinsky, the choreographer, had been panned for his setting of Debussy's Jeux two weeks earlier, and the open design of the new theater and hot weather encouraged bad behavior from an atypical audience (mostly tourists).

NPR had used this story to show how passionate audiences used to be. While it is true that art music has been "ritualized" too much, demanding silent and well-behaved audiences that are socially constrained from expressing their feelings except at certain times (the end of an aria or scene, the end of a piece), the riot is not a good example of passionate feelings from the typical audience of yesteryear.

A colleague of mine (from the Women's Studies department) had used the story to suggest that Stravinsky's musical language was horribly shocking. Again, the result is basically true: Stravinsky's use of rhythm, harmony, and orchestration was an example of extremes for that time, though not a break from his previous ballets ( Firebird and Petroushka) or horribly outlandish compared to contemporary works by Debussy, Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. But the riots were not indicative of these extremes.

The truest thing that can be said about the Parisian riots over The Rite of Spring is that it set a benchmark of succès de scandale for all avante-garde composers to strive for. This riot set Stravinsky's reputation as the leader in Modernist music, whether he caused it or not. As a recommendation to new composers who wish to make a name for themselves, make sure your audience does not like your music and has a predeliction for expressing its displeasure.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A show on NPR recast this story again more along the lines of your colleague in Radio Lab Season Two: Musical Language. They argued that when the part of your brain that tries to make sense out of sound can't do it, the brain releases dopamine, and that if it can't do it over and over again, it releases dopamine over and over. Then they linked excess dopamine to the problems of paranoid schizophrenics. I found your entry here by searching '1913 concert riot' in google, because I was eager to find out if people actually rioted because they heard dissonant chords. It seems that that explanation is a bit of an exaggeration now. In wikipedia ( the riot is described as having begun by people first arguing over the music, and continuing to elevate for some of the same reasons you've given above.