The ever infamous Rite of Spring riot. The author of The Verge’s article retells us the gist of what happens opening night at Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The story goes that on the night of its debut, The Rite of Spring was so jarring to the audience that people booed at the performance only a few notes in. As the ballet progressed, the crowd turned into a mob, going from jeering to throwing vegetables at the orchestra to rioting loud enough that the dancers couldn’t hear the music and had to listen to directions shouted at them by the ballet’s choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky from backstage. It’s a memorable and exciting piece of music history that gets told in classes all the time.
In the blog post however, the author argues that the riot didn’t actually happen! I figured that this was going to be speculation, but there’s actually some evidence to back up this debate. In summary, the author argues that the riot was not actually a riot, but a big, strong argument between French aristocrats and middle class music lovers who saw The Rite as a historic look into the traditions of an exploited peoples who performed such rituals to the entertainment of their European colonizers. According to the essay the author is using to explain this, much of how we learn about this “riot” comes from firsthand accounts that watched the ballet from the balcony of the theater which was made of concrete. This means any sound, especially any sound that may have been assumed to be fighting, would’ve been exaggerated in volume because of the balcony’s architectural resonance. For all we know, the riot could’ve been a glorified scuffle between two or three people. Another piece of evidence that the author borrows is about the chronology of reviews about The Rite. No critics had used the word “riot” in any of their reviews until 1924, eleven years after the ballet’s debut, and even then, that review had only been about a later orchestra-only performance at Carnegie Hall.
I actually listened to this ballet for the first time in my high school music class and my teacher put up a performance of it with the dancers in bright red costumes. I went back to search for that version to really get back the feeling of watching it for the very first time, and although it isn’t the same, I do remember how I felt. It was definitely different, especially after listening to something like Swan Lake or The Nutcracker. It didn’t bother me as much as it was hyped up to make me from the story about the riot, but I remember feeling like something was off. The dancing was the more jarring part rather than the music. Watching it back today, I am reminded of the movie “Midsommar,” which told a similar story about pagan traditions and a ritual sacrifice.