Igor’s Asymmetry Racket

The last post was about the scandalous uproar at the ballet premiere of The Rite of Spring.  The riot at opening night of The Rite is one of the most famous stories in music.  On February 18, 1914 the music was played in its first concert performance (music only, no dance).  This orchestra premiere (nine months after the ballet) was well received and got wonderful reviews from the beginning.


The Rite of Spring is one of those unavoidable pieces of music for any musician living in the last hundred years.  Love it or hate it, one has to somehow come to terms with it.  The Rite of Spring has a subtitle “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”.The structure of the piece is in two halves, with each half containing several scenes.  The first half is titled  “The Adoration of the Earth” and the second “The Sacrifice”.  The “storyline” is loosely about bronze-age rituals in pagan Russia. The second half concludes with a virgin (The Chosen One) dancing herself to death as a sacrifice to bring the tribe prosperity.  This is all not terribly accurate, historically speaking.  Joseph Kerman called it “dubious anthropology, but great theater”.  I would agree.

The earthy rhythms of the music are supposed to bring an element of “primitivism” to the tribal scenes. Stravinsky layers his musical material one on top of another.  He takes one bit of music with uneven rhythms and accents, then adds a layer of new material of a different length onto it. By adding more layers and repeating material of different lengths, the musical elements are always combining in different ways.  They don’t line up the same way every time. The resulting cacophony was lovingly termed “Igor’s asymmetry racket” by composer Harold Shapero. One of the best demonstrations of Stravinsky’s technique of combining music into polyrhythms is in a lecture by Leonard Bernstein.  Lenny gave this talk in 1973 at Harvard as part of the Charles Eliot Norton lecture series.  Below is a link to a 10 minute excerpt from that lecture series.

Leonard Bernstein speaking about The Rite of Spring

The video is an orchestra performance by the New England Conservatory . (Email readers click here)

Michael Tilson Thomas also did an hour long episode of the PBS program “Keeping Score” all about The Rite of Spring.  It is well worth the time to watch.

Keeping Score – Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

The Rite of Spring is so Right

Le Sacre Du Printemps : in english, The Rite of Spring. The subtitle reads “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”.  After the record breaking cold and snow of the Polar Vortex 2014, springtime cannot come soon enough.  I have to share a tradition I have for myself on the first day of Spring.  For the last 20 or so years, I put on a recording of The Rite of Spring and play it very loud on the big stereo speakers for everyone within earshot to hear.  My wife tolerates it, the cat HATES it and my neighbors seem to not mind.  Another possibility is my neighbors have recognized the pattern and run away on the day I plan to scare  Winter with Stravinsky’s masterpiece.

Like most people, I first heard of The Rite of Spring in the famous story about the riot at its premiere.  Imagine, music so powerfully moving that it caused the audience to actually riot!



The first performance was on May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, a famous theater in Paris.  It was a ballet, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, danced by the Ballets Russes to music by a young Igor Stravinsky.  The whole event was put on by the Russian Impresario  Sergei  Diaghilev, who had previously put on performances of The Firebird and Petrushka with music by Stravinsky.  This night would be different than anything Paris had seen before.

Trouble started right with the music of the introduction, the wonderful bassoon solo in the highest register the instrument can play.  The rumbling of the audience grew when the curtain rose on the dancers in their “pagan” inspired costumes.  The music and the dancing brought boos and shouting from the crowd.  The audience yelled at the stage, they yelled at the orchestra, they yelled at each other.  Fights broke out, and the police supposedly removed dozens of people.  The show went on, even though the dancers couldn’t hear the orchestra over the rioting audience.  It was nothing short of a scandal!

I would contend that this scandal was no accident.  It was the 1913 equivalent of Miley Cyrus “twerking” all over the stage, or Britney Spears performing with a big green snake around her neck or any number of attention getting behaviors by celebrities today.  It is a case of  “there is no such thing as bad publicity”.  Diaghilev was crazy like a fox, and he knew what was being performed that night was a shockingly far cry from what the audience came for.  They expected something like Swan Lake, with graceful ballet dancers en pointe in skin tight costumes and defying gravity with leaps in the air.  What they got was “knock-kneed Lolitas” stomping around in potato sacks.



Diaghilev also knew there were two main parts to the Parisian audience.  One was a well-to-do society crowd who came to be seen as much as to see the performance.  The other was a more “Bohemian” sort of counter-culture crowd that would support something new just because of its newness, and even more if it annoyed the society crowd.  Diaghilev even passed out free tickets to make sure there was a large population of each camp to disagree with one another.  The resulting scandal served his purpose perfectly, as everyone was talking about the Ballets Russes performance.  I’m still writing about it 101 years after the fact.  Diaghilev said after the evenings controversy, “Exactly what I wanted”.

The video is a 1989 recreation of the original sets and choreography performed by the Joffrey Ballet.  Le Sacre is in two parts and I think it is near the beginning of the second half (16:01 in the video) where someone at the premiere yelled out, “My God, get them a dentist!” (Email readers click here)

The music of The Rite of Spring has gone on to be one of the most played and recorded concert works separate from the ballet.  It is certainly Igor Stravinsky’s best known music, and one of my all time favorites.

– Rich