London, Asharq Al-Awsat—If each month could have a different name, what would be a more suitable name for the month of May? To those interested in modernism, it might be the “Rite of Spring.”
A hundred years ago, the first performance of The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky provoked a riot by a crowd of music lovers in Paris. They had filled the Opera Garnier expecting to see yet another classical ballet offered by the famous Ballets Russes and directed by the even more famous Diaghilev. The composer, Stravinsky, was little known and few expected his latest work to be “daring beyond the limits of decency,” as a French newspaper claimed the following day.
It was 1913, and Europe was settled in its comfortable, ostrich-like ignorance of a dangerously changing world. Music was expected to be grand and Wagnerian or light and joyful in the style of Bizet and Berlioz. In painting, impressionism was supposed to have fixed the limits of daring. Architecture was ossified in its neo-Hellenic posture. Poetry sought its breathing space in the clouds of romanticism. As for novels, the quest for the grand theme spanning large portions of human history was a key source of inspiration.
Then came The Rite of Spring to upset and shake the complacent bourgeois Europe out of its historic slumber.
It seemed as if Stravinsky had decided to break every musical rule and tradition. Grand traditional themes were interspersed with folk tunes borrowed from the frozen shores of Estonia. Traditional polyphonies were dismantled and then put together again like pieces of Lego, with their endless possibilities for construction, reconstruction and deconstruction.
Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography only reinforced Stravinsky’s playful-yet-serious incursions beyond the realms of musical possibility. The Parisian audience might have tolerated the absence of traditional ballet dress, replaced by tribal and folkloric outfits. But it had to be scandalized—or pretend to be so—when practically naked dancers appeared on the scene. Anger was mixed with confusion when the same bodies seemed to represent mankind’s total vulnerability to unseen and untold threats. Was that a hint of the world war that was to start in a year’s time, although at the time no one expected it? And what did the sacrifice of the character called The Chosen One, supposed to be an innocent virgin, actually symbolize? Was Stravinsky prophesizing the end of Europe’s innocence?
The angry audience who walked out of the opera in Paris believed it was showing its distaste for a work that ignored most established rules of musical creation. What it did not know was that the performance of The Rite of Spring on that May 29 represented the birth of modernism.
Ironically, a few months before the performance, German intellectual circles had pompously declared “the death of modernism.” The West was now moving towards the post-modernist era, they asserted.
However, The Rite of Spring with its synoptic nonchalance and joyful despair, would eventually prove to have been the most effective expression of its zeitgeist. This was the age of breaking the rules by seeking new ones. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was shaking English poetry out of its slumber. Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Amédée Ozenfant were seeking the contours of cubism in art. Marcel Duchamp was enlisting provocation in the service of artistic creation. Le Corbusier was preparing to pull down architectural certainties. Einstein was doing something even more momentous by upsetting physics’ plurimillennial certainties. In cinema, Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnao were to find inspiration in Stravinsky. In theater, news styles developed by Max Reinhardt and Lee Strasberg owed much to Stravinsky’s daring attempt at breaking the chains of tradition. In Literature, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett admitted that their work had been made possible in part by The Rite of Spring.
A year after the “shocking” performance, it was the beating of the drums of war that dominated life with its deadly percussion. Had Stravinsky foreseen that? Had he seen the trenches where corpses of dead soldiers were piled on top of each other like the bodies of his dancers in The Rite of Spring? Had he seen the effect of chemical weapons on civilians by scattering his ballerinas on the stage like petals of a broken rose?
One thing is now certain: the virgin sacrifice represented Europe’s innocence, need, the innocence of our species. The modern world was being born, in fire and blood, beautiful, exciting and tragic.