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<   No. 3790   2017-12-29   >

Comic #3790

1 Prof. Jones: Ah, spring! A time of renewal, celebrated by pagan rituals of feverish and lurid dancing.
2 Prof. Jones: It reminds me of that Paris ballet premiere of 1913.
2 Monty: You attended the premiere of The Rite of Spring??
3 Monty: I heard the audience rioted because they didn't understand Stravinsky's avant-garde composition.
4 Prof. Jones: Yes. It was such a shame. He seemed so Igor to please.

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Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is probably better known today as simply a work of music, but it was written as a ballet. Stravinsky was a young unknown composer who Sergei Diaghilev hired to write new music for the Ballets Russes. HIs first two efforts were unqualified hits: The Firebird and Petrushka , which premiered in 1910 and 1911 respectively.

With The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky changed direction dramatically in his composing, from the melodic traditions of classical music to embrace new and developing concepts of atonality, dissonance, and irregular stresses and rhythms. It's difficult to imagine how groundbreaking and new this music would have sounded to an audience in 1913, because 20th century music adopted many of the innovations Stravinsky championed, and now The Rite of Spring sounds more "classical" than avant-garde to modern ears used to the changes it wrought in our collective cultural musical landscape.

The story of its premiere in 1913 at Paris's Théâtre des Champs-Élysées has been told and retold many times since, so that now it is difficult to know exactly what happened, but it is certain that there was a considerable disturbance among the audience, and that several people had to be ejected. The unfamiliarity and strangeness of the music itself may not have been the main cause - the ballet dancing had unusual and primal choreography that could have caused scandal, and the Parisian audiences of the time were polarised between the established gentry and the Bohemian middle classes who were keen to disrupt and overturn wealthy artistic traditions.

Whatever really happened that May evening in Paris, The Rite of Spring has gone on to become one of the most popular works in the corpus of western orchestral music, and one of the most recorded. If you've never sat, with nothing else to do but listen, and listened to The Rite of Spring, this is one thing I recommend you do[1]. It only takes 35 minutes or so. Don't look at your phone. Just close your eyes and listen.

[1] If you've seen Disney's Fantasia (the original 1940 version), you get a partial credit, as The Rite of Spring is the music used for the dinosaur sequence, although it was abridged and reordered, and Stravinsky himself - the only living composer whose work appeared in the film - strongly criticised the changes.

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