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A century on, Stravinsky's 'Rite' still summons the caveman

LONDON (Reuters) - A hundred years ago this week, the premiere of Russian emigre composer Igor Stravinsky's pounding, pagan, pulsating "The Rite of Spring" caused a near riot in Paris and changed the face of modern music. It still makes conductors' hair stand on end.
/ Source: Reuters

LONDON (Reuters) - A hundred years ago this week, the premiere of Russian emigre composer Igor Stravinsky's pounding, pagan, pulsating "The Rite of Spring" caused a near riot in Paris and changed the face of modern music. It still makes conductors' hair stand on end.

"I have to admit that when we come to the moment just before the last dance, and the bass clarinet goes down, my blood pressure is up, I have this sort of adrenaline surge," Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen told Reuters recently in London.

"It's an old caveman reaction - now you have to be prepared to leap even higher than ever before because the saber-toothed tiger is just behind you - and I love it," he said of facing the piece's finale, with its tricky, irregular and shifting rhythms.

On Wednesday night a sold-out audience at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, where on May 29, 1913, Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy attended perhaps the most notorious premiere in the history of music - Giacomo Puccini called it "sheer cacophony" - will get a chance to relive that thrilling night.

The 100th anniversary of the short work by the then little-known, bespectacled and clerkish composer, who somehow distilled man's primitive nature in a raucous and earthy half hour of music that concludes with a virgin's dance to the death, will get a double dose of the Rite.

Valery Gergiev will lead the Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra in a 1987 reconstruction of Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky's 1913 original choreography by ballet historians Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer. That will be followed by a new version by Berlin-based choreographer Sasha Waltz.

Stravinsky's music "conceals some ancient force, it's as if it's filled with the power of the Earth", Waltz said in conjunction with the premiere of her ballet earlier this month by the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, in comments on the website of the Russkiy Mir cultural and educational foundation.

Stravinsky's changing time signatures and use of dissonance in the Rite set the tone of music for the rest of the century.

Wednesday's event will be a tout-Paris affair, with critics, luminaries of the cultural world and French officialdom in attendance, but the Rite is not a piece that needs dusting off or a stamp of approval. Its appeal is visceral and immediate.

"The miracle of that piece is the eternal youth of it. It's so fresh, it still kicks ass," said Salonen, who has recorded the Rite at least three times and will play it at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in early June. "How many 100-year-old pieces do that?"

Or, as Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, told Reuters in an interview recently in Dresden, after getting rave reviews for his Rite earlier this year: "It's a very dirty piece in every way and should be shocking."


To this day, there is lively debate about what happened a century ago in the theatre, a short walk from the Eiffel Tower. Did a Parisian claque, incensed at the choreography of impresario Serge Diaghilev's Russian lead dancer and lover Nijinsky, arrive bloody-minded and armed with vegetables? Did Stravinsky's pounding, pagan music inflame passions?

Stravinsky himself described Nijinsky's faux-primitive, peasant-garbed corps de ballet as looking like "a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down", but he also said Nijinsky's choreography was all the piece needed.

Following the uproar, the ballet was performed only half a dozen times, but the music was played to noisy audiences in Paris, more respectful ones in London and Russia, and by the 1920s was a hit in the United States and, later, the world.

"It was 'horrible music', terrifying; you might frighten your children with it, but very few people had heard it, so I think that helped its reputation to expand before the music arrived," Stephen Walsh, author of a two-volume biography of Stravinsky, said in a telephone interview.

In 1940, the Rite made its screen debut in Walt Disney's animated paean to classical music "Fantasia", with warring dinosaurs taking the place of the Lolitas. Perhaps in deference to Disney's famous prurience, the sacrificial dance was excised by the ever-accommodating Leopold Stokowski, the British conductor of Polish-Irish heritage, who led the Philadelphia Orchestra for the soundtrack.

This year the big music labels have done something they rarely do these days, putting a spotlight on the Rite like no other piece in living memory by releasing box sets reprising the best versions in their back catalogues - 10 CDs in one box for Sony, and a whopping 20 for Universal.

"We need to remind people how shocking and awesome this was, so let's do something a bit crazy," said Graham Southern, catalogue manager for Universal in London.

"It's edgy, it's exciting and, to me, listening to the piece, it's an experience," said Robert Russ, Southern's counterpart at Sony. He cherishes his set's remastering of a 1940 recording conducted by Stravinsky, in which the orchestra stumbles through the sacrificial dance, emphasizing how hard it was at the time.

"It's kind of charming because we are living in an era of perfection and everybody expects crystal-clear sound and perfect timings ... but that's also the reason why even if you have a nice house, people are sitting in front of a fireplace ... This is the experience of some of these historic recordings."

(Editing by Will Waterman)