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For Stravinsky, rhythm was king.
Paris, the Champs-Elysées theatre, May 29, 1913:
A now-legendary riot breaks out amongst the audience as Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes unveils its brand new work, The Rite of Spring, Nijinsky’s tale of human sacrifice with a brutal, elemental score from Igor Stravinsky. Listening expectantly as the snake-charming bassoon uncoils its forlorn melody – based on a Lithuanian Wedding song – the crowd is confronted by a pack of knock-kneed dancers running around the stage in vibrant Russian folk costumes.
From the pit comes an accompaniment of off-kilter rhythms, dissonant eruptions and mood-swinging dynamics. The audience explodes into a cacophony of booing and catcalling, fighting and scuffling in the aisles. It was a musical revolution akin to what Beethoven’s Eroica had done a century before. The press predictably had a field day, which was “exactly what I wanted,” Diaghilev confided to Stravinsky the next day.
20 years later, Stravinsky created another ‘rite of spring’ around the fertility myth about the arrival of Spring. This is the story of Perséphone, Goddess of Spring and Queen of the Underworld, whose annual descent brings the winter months whilst her compassionate return to life on Earth brings spring.