‘the rite of spring’: the 20th century’s first multimedia collaboration?
One of the first and most significant multimedia collaborations of the 20th century, ‘The Rite Of Spring’ is a provocative ballet conceived by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and Russian artist/philosopher Nikolai Roerich. Commissioned by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, ‘Rite’ struck a chord with humanity which still reverbrates around the globe.
Arguably unlike any other piece of 20th century classical music, the dramatic juxtaposition of its primitive heart and transcendental beauty with its sub-human dissonance and malevolent rhythms are still getting under the skin of listeners almost a hundred years later.
at it’s heart ’rite of spring’ was a primal response to dehumanizing culture of the machine age
Stravinsky, a student of classical Russian music and folklore under mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (as demonstrated by his earlier work, The Firebird) sought out Roerich, a respected creative artist and Russian historian, to create together what would be their magnum opus.
Stravinksy and Roerich re-imagined an ancient pagan fertility ritual; a group of young maidens would “dance to the death” to appease the Gods of Spring, one maiden making the ultimate bloody sacrifice. Roerich creating the sets and costumes and contribute ideas to Stravinsky’s music.
Unlike other ballets of the time, they did not want the dancers to “mime” the narrative, they wanted it to be as real as possible. “The Great Sacrifice [as it was originally named] would not tell a story of pagan ritual, it would be that ritual,” Stravinsky declared. (Taruskin 1996, p856). They enlisted the services of choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, who’s frighteningly violent dance was essential to its initial assault on the senses.
‘The Rite Of Spring’ was the artistic manifestation of the early 20th century Russian ideal (championed by Roerich and his contemporary, poet Alexander Blok) that man could reclaim “spiritual wholeness” in the Machine Age by embracing the pagan values, the “stikhiya” (translation: primitive immediacy) of Stone Age man, an idea Roerich passionately expressed in his art and writings:
“The wise Mayans left an inscription. It is three thousand years old: ‘You who have later shown your face in this place! If your wits are about you you will ask, “Who are we?” – Who are we? Ask the dawn, ask the forest, ask the wave, ask the storm, ask love! Ask the earth, the earth of suffering, our beloved earth! Who are we? We are the earth!” Roerich wrote in the passionate conclusion to his emotionally-charged essay, Joy Of Art, published in the European Courier, 1908. (Taruskin 1996, p854).
It is a yearning that has never been stronger (albeit for many unconscious) as machines inherit the Earth at the dawn of the 21st century; yet another reason why this piece is still significant.
russian ‘rite’ incites riot: parisians become primitives at premiere
As legend has it, ‘The Rite Of Spring’s’ (French translation: Le Sacre Du Printemps) now legendary premiere at Paris’ Theatre des Champs-Elysées, on May 29, 1913 incited a riot.
Concertgoers devolved into “savages” as “shouts and fistfights,” “catcalls and whistles” rang out as the demanding rhythms, overwhelmingly loud and extreme orchestration and violent, jarring dance movements overcame the audience.
According to the New York Times review of the ballet’s opening, “fighting broke out, challenges to duel were served and accepted, and by the interval the police had been called in.”
Said Roerich later, “their wild primitivism had nothing in common with the refined primitivism of our ancestors.” (Decter, p20)
riot evolves into revolution in music
What made ‘Rite Of Spring’ a seminal creative work was not just its sensational reception in 1913, but the deep mark it made on composers, artists and listeners of all ages – perhaps a result of Stravinsky’s anarchic approach.
“I was guided by no system whatsoever in ‘le sacre du primtemps’, and no theory. I had only my ear to help me. I heard, and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which the sacre passed,” Stravinsky said. Though the melodies were often echoes of Slav work songs, he undeniably turned what he heard into something entirely new.
“It haunts me like a good nightmare” says composer Claude Debussy (Da Fonseca-Wollheim, C, 2010) while conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein gleefully exclaimed to a young orchestra when rehearsing the piece at Schleswig Holstein Festival in Germany: “Don’t you get it? This piece is all about SEX!” (Alsop, 2007)
It is powerful because it is alive with the deep, dissonant rhythms that make us human. Our heart doesn’t beat like a metronome, it is irregular – a metronomic heartbeat is the first sign the human body is approaching death. Thus, it is no surprise ‘Rite’s’ rhythm breathes heavily down the neck of all who experience it – as a sign of life.
Arguably the most beloved, referenced and reinterpreted piece of classical music in history, The Rite heralded a new age of rhythmic, instinctual, dissonant music.
fantasia: not quite ‘rite’ for stravinsky
Years after the reaction to the ‘Rite’ evolved from horror to adulation Stravinsky found solace in America and his ‘Rite Of Spring’ discovered its biggest, broadest audience yet.
Stravinsky once said, “My music is best understood by children and animals.” The former were the intended audience for what is probably the most famous re-appropriation of his innovative work, Walt Disney’s 1940 animated epic, ‘Fantasia.’
‘Fantasia’ was not only a giant leap for animated cinema, it was the first commercial film to be screened in stereo with “Fantasound” broadcasting the eight classical pieces chosen for the film, an early pre-cursor to stereo.
Disney deemed the ritual sacrifice of the original too shocking for children, adjusting the storyline to a more simplistic birth of the Earth sequence, complete with Noah’s Ark reference and the repetition of the opening bassoon solo (that was so offensive on its premiere). These “Hollywood edits” were just a few reasons why Stravinsky reportedly called Fantasia “execrable” and the visuals “an unresisting imbecility.”
Despite Stravinsky’s derision, ‘Fantasia’ remained a landmark multimedia work. ‘Fantasia’ is timeless … [it] is an idea in itself. I can never build another ‘Fantasia.’ I can improve. I can elaborate. That’s all,’ Disney said of the work, which mirrored Stravinsky’s original ‘Rite’ in shock value – something neither exceeded in their lifetimes.
the rite of spring embraces new technology: cut up, 3D & virtual worlds
Beyond ‘Fantasia’, ‘Rite Of Spring’ has inspired countless music and visual artists to reinterpret the work, e.g. the Philharmonia Orchestra’s art installation ‘Re-Rite’, which allows the public to “conduct, play and step” inside ‘The Rite Of Spring’, via audio and video projections.
Electronic music DJ and producer Stefan Goldmann sliced together 144 samples of the piece being performed back in 2006, in the process unfortunately destroying the essence that beats at the heart of ‘The Rite Of Spring’ – the immediacy.
Austrian multimedia artist Klaus Obermaier took Re-Rite one step further with his 3D ballet, ‘Le Sacre du Printemps‘ – arguably the most innovative re-imagining yet. Unlike Goldmann’s disjointed piece, Stravinsky’s original message within Obermaier’s work remains, adapted to the Technology Age.
Obermaier sees parallels with Stravinsky’s time – when the “ecstatic desire to experience the intensity of life” prevailed – and the uncertain present. “We sense we are in a time of similar change, and it isn’t clear what the outcome or the conflicts will be,” Obermaier ruminates. (Obermaier, 2010).
What the Times Of London decreed was “Stravinsky for the Matrix generation” utilises similar technology to Avatar – except live, transforming the principal dancer’s movements into a 3D space experienced with 3D goggles.
Rite Of Spring’s new cyberworld “is a metaphor for sacrifice, deliverance and the anticipation of the eternal happiness that new technologies and old religions promise.” (Obermaier, 2010). The dancer’s “sacrifice” is a disappearance into the virtual space, a genuine risk for people of the modern world.
The work also pioneers what Obermaier describes as “meta choreography” – the dynamics of the music transforming the virtual presence of the dancer.
“The issue of the day is the authenticity of experience in the light of the ongoing virtualization of our habitats,” Obermaier writes of his new work. “It is the dissolution of our sensuous perception, of the space-time continuum, the fading dividing line between real and virtual, fact and fake that takes us to the limits of our existence.”
These blurring lines are made even more powerful when harnessed via ‘The Rite Of Spring,’ a work who’s visceral punch and subconscious desire to connect with the Earth renders this 3D world even more “real.”
A more traditional piece, with less violence and less rhythmic dischord could not have inspired this new multimedia experience. One can imagine Stravinsky himself becoming inspired to write music for these worlds, had he not died 40 years ago.
is venetian snares the bastard child of stravinsky, the ‘master of form’?
Stravinsky said “there is music wherever there is rhythm, as there is life wherever there beats a pulse.” Stravinsky’s work was not only highly innovative, particularly in terms of rhythm and dissonance – it has become 21st century source material.
A new generation of electronic music artists shamelessly steal from everywhere to create new compositions as provocative and divisive as Stravinsky’s riotous ‘Rite’ with his “no rules” approach – empowered by the freedoms of modern technology.
Just one example is Venetian Snares, a prolific and highly creative post-modern musician unafraid to explore, manipulate and destroy any source and re-synthesise it.
On his seminal album 2005’s Rossz Csillag Allat Született (translation: Born Under A Bad Star), his song Hajnal (below) samples Stravinsky over a cacophony of breakbeats, which appear several minutes into the piece; like Rite Of Spring, it lulls the listener into a false sense of security before the onslaught begins – creating music daring enough to assault even an ear de-sensitised by the 21st century’s constant white noise.
Over the course of his career, Venetian Snares has re-appropriated samples from film, television, jazz, classical music, noise – pitch-shifted, twisted and violated. On ‘Nymphomatriarch’ (with his then partner, fellow breakcore musician Hecate) used their sexual acts as the only sonic source (below).
Almost a century after ‘The Rite Of Spring’ caused a riot, the palette for sonic experimentation has never been more open – but Stravinsky’s successor is yet to emerge.
Alsop, M. & Simon, S., 2007 ‘The Primitive Pulse of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’’, National Public Radio, viewed 7 April 2011,
Alsop, M. & Simon, S., 2007, ‘Stravinsky Describes His Inspiration For ‘The Rite Of Spring’ (‘Le Sacre du Printemps’), National Public Radio,viewed 7 April 2011
Decter, J., 1997, Messenger Of Beauty: The Life and Visionary Art of Nicholas Roerich, Park Street Press.
Da Fonseca-Wollheim, C., 2010, ‘Like a Good Nightmare’: The haunting, feral savagery of Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’, Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company.
Obermaier, K., 2010, ‘Le Sacre du Printemps. Igor Stravinsky. An interactive stereoscopic dance and music performance. Klaus Obermaier. Julia Mach. Ars Electronica Futurelab.’ viewed 10 April 2011,
Salonen, E., 2010, ‘Be The Orchestra: Re-Rite,’ viewed 11 April 2011
Stravinsky, I., Craft, R., 1981, Expositions and Developments, University Of California Press.
Taruskin, R., 1996, Stravinsky and the Russian traditions: a biography of the works through Mavra, University of California Press.