The Rite of Spring has become a strange sort of phenomenon – a cultural icon for modernism (and modernity) that persists in defiance of its age.  That a lavish pre-war Parisian ballet spectacle could remain modern in the popular imagination is partly an exhibit of the often-maligned museum culture of classical music, but it also is a sign of the music’s incredible staying power; that a work depicting scenes from the earliest pre-history would be so associated with modernity is perhaps a fitting irony.

The piece is a relatively early one in Stravinsky’s output, and combines several of his enthusiasms: a preoccupation with his native culture (then an expat living in Switzerland), a fauvism in vogue at the time, and an interest in machines and the mechanical.  The scenario Stravinsky dreamed up (quite literally, in one account) involved ancient pagan rites culminating in a scene of human sacrifice.  Historical detail from Russian painter and folklore guru Nicolai Roerich (who also designed The Rite’s original sets and costumes) created a thoroughly researched scenario steeped in the tradition of pre-Christian Russia, though notably the climactic sacrifice remained Stravinsky’s invention.

The drama of The Rite is organized around two acts. In the first, we are treated to a series of scenes likely co-opted from the summer solstice festival Kupala: a crone performing auguries for young men, a game of wife-abduction, competition between rival teams – all of which is interrupted by the entrance of “The Oldest and Wisest One,” a patriarch who bestows his “kiss upon the earth,” after which the people begin a wild stomping dance.

The second act begins with maidens performing midnight rituals on a sacred hillock. One of the girls is singled out as “The Chosen One,” and glorified in dance. The elders enter to witness her sacrifice, whereupon the victim dances her final, fatal dance.

The premiere was a riotous affair, complete with undercurrents of class warfare, the hubbub at times completely drowning out the music.  “Things got as far as fighting,” Stravinsky dryly recounted.  An opening night disaster soon became central to its fame, as the succés de scandale par excellence.  It inspired copycat spectacles, notably Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin (promptly banned after its premiere), and Jean Cocteau’s Parades, a ballet presenting the street entertainment outside the hall as the main attraction.  For the latter, the centrality of scandal is attested to by Cocteau’s unwillingness to leave such things to chance – the obligatory opening night riot he instigated with hired help.

While much of the scandal to which The Rite owed its initial success benefited from Diaghilev's cynical promotion and Nijinsky's shocking choreography, Stravinsky's musical score is no less impressive in this regard.  Not only Stravinsky's penchant for dissonant harmonies and violent, jagged rhythms, extreme even in an era of shocking and dissonant scores, but also in thematic and structural elements: Formal ideas based on non sequitur and absence of transition, anticipating the short attention span of mass media culture.  A new kind of theatre – rather than depict a pagan ritual, the ballet became ritual – separating lines between reality and fiction.  And disturbingly, the application of the highest technical sophistication in service of violence and savagery.

And violence, if anything, is the unifying theme here.  Violence against the eyes, with a choreography deliberately designed to subvert norms of beauty in dance.  Against the ears, not only the harsh dissonance, but in ordinary harmonies contextualized to seem dissonant (the opening duet a prime example).  Violence against even the poor bassoonist, who must open the piece in an exposed solo at the very top of the instrument’s range.  Then there is the physical violence of the scenario, made all the worse for the scenario itself being an act of violence perpetrated on the traditions on which it is based, barbarizing them with an imposed and utterly ahistorical scene of human sacrifice.  It is almost too perfect that the first performance should itself be met with violence, the pandemonium in the theater a perfect reflection of the mayhem on stage.