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Stravinsky sparks strife

When Igor Stravinsky premiered his work Le Sacre du printemps at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in May 1913, he was not an unknown composer making his debut to the French audience.They were already familiar with his previous work, L'Oiseau de feu (The Firebird), but if they were expecting more of the same charming music with The Rite of Spring, and thought they had some measure of Stravinsky, they would have done a double take when the curtain rose and they heard his music alongside the choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky.

The Rite of Spring tells of a pagan virgin sacrifice; Stravinsky himself remarked that "The curtain rose on a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down", which was not exactly what the sophisticated Parisian audience had come to the Ballet Russes to see. (The ballet centres around an ancient fertility rite in which a young virgin is selected for ritual sacrifice.) The visual elements and also the music prompted the catcalls from the audience. Rather than the charming music normally associated with ballets, the overture opened with a bassoon playing outside well its normal register, producing a sound similar to what we might produce if we strain our voices beyond a normal comfortable range. Stravinsky might have thought that sound appropriate to create the unease of the opening scene, befitting the story, but the audience certainly didn't think that kind of sound and the music suitable for a ballet.

Eventually the audience resentment and murmur reached such a boiling point that the orchestra could not be heard from the stage. Choreographer Nijinksy had to climb on a chair in the wings to shout instructions to his dancers. And if the frantic scene - disorganised dancers, inaudible music, a jeering audience - wasn't bad enough, someone had the bright idea to have the house lights switched on and off repeatedly, flickering, in a failed bid to restore order. What chaos!

Stravinsky paved the way for modern composition, aiding impressionism, atonality and twelve-tone music in further dismantling the harmonic structure that had served music for centuries, in favour of rhythm, dissonance and drive to depict emotion.

Today's music listeners are accustomed to musical elements such as harmonic dissonance and jarring rhythms through exposure to films and other visual media, but for the early audiences, Stravinsky's music was quite a shock!

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