It was the evening of 29 May 1913, 100 years ago, when Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, under the baton of Pierre Monteux, presented the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). The audience, packed into the newly-opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to the point of standing room only, had neither seen nor heard anything like it. By the time the curtain rose to reveal ballet dancers stomping the stage, the protests had reached a crescendo. The orchestra and dancers, choreographed by the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, continued but it was impossible to hear the music above what Stravinsky described as a “terrific uproar”. As a riot ensured, two factions in the audience attacked each other, then the orchestra, which kept playing under a hail of vegetables and other objects. Forty people were forcibly ejected. As the audience erupted, Diaghilev called for calm and flashed the house lights on and off, while Nijinsky was forced to call out steps to the dancers as the beat of the music was drowned out by the riotous cacophony. Even now there is debate over whether the audience reaction was spontaneous or the work of outraged traditionalists armed with vegetables who had come looking for trouble.
The reviews were merciless. “The work of a madman … sheer cacophony,” wrote the composer Puccini. “A laborious and puerile barbarity,” added Le Figaro’s critic, Henri Quittard. It was, according to some of those present – who included Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy – the sound of derisive laughter.
Today, the piece has gone from rioting to rave reviews and is widely considered one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century. Since then The Rite has been adapted for and included in an estimated 150 productions around the world.