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The Riot of Spring: music and madness in the beau monde

On 27 May 1913, fashionable Paris was scandalized by the premiere of a new ballet. Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring, as it is usually known in English), with music by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, depicted pagan ceremonies for the coming of spring, culminating in the sacrifice of a young woman who dances herself to death. Faced with Stravinsky’s dissonant, modernist score and Nijinsky’s experimental choreography, expressing exotic subject matter, the audience rioted. Stravinsky left the auditorium in disgust, to find Nijinsky backstage yelling directions to his dancers, who could no longer hear their musical cues over the clamour of the audience. Fights broke out between audience members, as those who were hissing and booing were violently rebuked by those who saw genius in the ballet. The journalist Carl van Vechten recalled being so swept away that he failed for some time to notice that the man in the seat behind him was beating time on his head, equally transported by Stravinsky’s rhythmical music.

A gift from the Muses

Music is, and perhaps has always been, an inspirer of extreme emotions; yet music is one of those commonplace words. We use it so often, and its sense is so familiar to us, that we probably don’t think much about where it comes from. It’s a shame, really, because it has rather wonderful roots in the figures of the Muses, nine goddesses in ancient Greek myth who inspired the arts and learning.

The ancient Greek root of music is a word referring to all art presided over by the Muses, as well as specifically to what we now call music. (The word museum has the same root, being originally the ancient Greek word for a place holy to the Muses, and in later Greek more generally a place of study, art, and philosophy.) Music first appears in English writing in the early fourteenth century. Before this, the commonest words used to refer to music were dream, which had primary meanings of joy, pleasure, and mirth, and glee, which also referred to entertainment and sport. (This dream is perhaps not apparently from the same root as the dream that occurs during sleep, which is not attested in English until later.)

Stravinsky in the OED

Stravinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring is celebrated as a turning point in the development of modern music, and when we look at Stravinsky’s presence in the Oxford English Dictionary, we find him keeping company with a number of words that express the shock caused by his experimentalism. The entry for shatterer, for example, cites an opinion from 1922, that Stravinsky “is a disturber of our peace, a shatterer of illusions”, while pyrotechnist is illustrated by a 1929 quotation which claims that “Stravinsky has always been somewhat of a musical pyrotechnist.”

The latter word is derived from the ancient Greek pyro-, which relates to fire, and tekhne, meaning art; pyrotechnics is a firework display or, metaphorically, a brilliant display of skill. Stravinsky also appears in quotations illustrating musical terms, for example pantonality and serialism. Pantonality (the Greek prefix pan- means “all”) is a form of musical composition where the music moves through a number of different keys rather than following the traditional Western musical structure around a fixed tonic note. Serialism, meanwhile, is a technique in which a piece is composed from a specific series of notes, which can only be arranged in very particular ways. Both of these terms relate to the musical developments of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, showing Stravinsky’s place at the forefront of musical experimentation.

Virages and savages

Stravinsky’s name crops up in the OED’s entry for the noun virage, a sharp bend (from the French virer, to turn around), in a reference to his “rhythmic virages”. The rhythmicity of Stravinsky’s music was much commented upon by the contemporary audience of The Rite of Spring, for example the reviewer from British newspaper The Times who compared the work to “savages” performing “ceremonial dances to the accompaniment of tom-toms”, and Carl van Vechten’s observations on the “barbarous rhythm” of the work.

These two quotations bring out another strand in reactions to the ballet, which was the sense that it was primitive and unrefined. Given that Stravinsky’s subtitle for the work was “Tableaux de la Russie païenne” (“scenes of pagan Russia”), it should not have come as much of a surprise that the subject matter was far removed from the glamour and elegance of Paris in 1913. But Westerners of the period, steeped in the paternalistic attitudes of colonialist expansion, were conditioned to feel a kind of fearful superiority towards so-called primitive cultures, and the words which are repeated throughout contemporary criticism of The Rite of Spring, “savage”, “barbarous”, “primitive”, reflect a kind of cultural distaste.

Despite the similarity in the way they are used, these three words come from very different origins. Primitive comes from a Latin root meaning “original” or “first”, partly via the French primitif, and is related to words such as primary and premier. Savage is another French borrowing, from sauvage (“wild”, “undomesticated”), and it too comes ultimately from Latin. The Latin root, silvaticus, means “of the woods”, and the development of meaning suggests a distinction between those who lived in cultivated areas and those who lived in undeveloped woods and forests. Barbarous, in contrast, comes ultimately from a Greek word with the primary meaning “foreign”, and is perhaps onomatopoeic, representing the babbling or stuttering sounds imagined to be characteristic of speakers of languages incomprehensible to Greeks. It is ironic that Stravinsky’s hypnotic, disturbing music struck many of its first listeners as the production of a primitive, childish aesthetic, when in reality it was so far ahead of its time.

A hundred years after The Rite of Spring’s premiere, we can look back on Stravinsky as a pioneer who shook the pillars of the musical establishment. Yet his effect on so many of his contemporaries is summed up by a cartoon from the satirical magazine Punch in 1926, showing a woman with a pained expression listening to something over the wireless, and her husband asking “What’s the matter, dear? Is it bad news or Stravinsky?”