They may be concert hits now, but in their day Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite changed the face of dance.

May 29, 1913: the day classical music changed forever. The date the stage of the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris saw the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s scandalising collaboration with the brilliant, young ballet radical Vaslav Nijinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps, or to use its english translation, The Rite of Spring.

The performance would come to be known as one of the most infamous events of the century. First-hand accounts recorded it as a riotous shambles. Nijinsky’s avant-garde, pointe-less choreography provoked such a din of abuse that some witnesses claimed the score was nearly inaudible. The mind-bending complexity and rhythmic asymmetry of Stravinsky’s music kept the orchestra perpetually teetering on the brink of collapse. The savagery of Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s prehistoric ballet seemed to devolve the irascible masses. 

Shouts came from gallery and sniggers from the stalls; members of the audience pulled their hats over their eyes and ears; the bourgeois gentry brandished their canes like cudgels while the bohèmes gazed on, entranced by the spectacle; and at least one person was challenged to a duel. The scene is closer to a boozed-up football hooligans’ brawl than a pleasant night at the theatre, and the details of that fateful evening have been embellished and exaggerated by more than a century of Chinese whispers. 

Today, legends of the riot at The Rite are taken as unquestioned fact, held up as a glorious example of a bygone age when art mattered enough to throw a punch.The reality may not have been quite as outrageous, but, nonetheless, there’s no doubt that Stravinsky’s score that night created a fault line in the history of music. Never before had the orchestral medium been used to create an expression of such raw, untempered brutality; music that is at once ancient and primordial and yet almost incomprehensibly modern. From this point on, no composer would write a note without genuflecting towards or against the seismic influence of Stravinsky.

In isolation, it’s perhaps unsurprising that The Rite has earned its mythic reputation

In isolation, it’s perhaps unsurprising that The Rite has earned this mythic reputation. From the throttled yawp of the opening bassoon solo, emerging at an almost inconceivably high pitch, to the leviathan cellular convulsions of the sacrificial dance, almost every aspect of the music seemed to serve an aesthetic so alien and wanton that it defied explanation. As one critic put it, “The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect,” with another noting that the stark, relentless nature of the piece was “like an animal that turns in its cage and never tires of butting its head against the bars.” 

For other composers and dance-makers throughout the 20th century, the piece was a watershed moment offering a gateway to stylistic and expressive freedom that had, until that point, been blocked by unreceptive audiences and stiflingly uptight critics. Stravinsky himself was more than happy to play up to the fable of the piece, creating a fug of mystical intrigue around it. He would famously confess that the idea for the work came to him in a dream, and insisted that the music arrived as if by spiritual inspiration. “I was guided by no system whatever,” he said. “I had only my ear to help me; I heard, and wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed.” The Rite became elevated from a work of groundbreaking innovation to an almost sacred accomplishment, with Stravinsky as its elected shaman.

Houston Ballet’s The Rite of Spring. Photo by Amitava Sarkar

And yet in truth, the creation of this piece was not a spontaneous act of the divine. It was part of a continuum, without which the sacrosanct status of The Rite of Spring might never have been possible. It was a combination of raw talent, historical luck, artistic serendipity and bloody-minded ambition that created the perfect conditions to propel Stravinsky from obscurity to immortality. 

For Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra David Robertson, this aspect of Stravinsky’s personality, writ large across the three ballets commissioned for the Ballet Russes – The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring – offers a particularly fascinating perspective on the composer. “Stravinsky was a very ambitious young man from the start, but you can really see this in action when he started to become a public figure. These three ballets brought him more notoriety than he ever expected, and I think this was something he really enjoyed. He began very shrewdly to craft his public persona, which is something he would be concerned with for the rest of his life,” Robertson notes. “Stravinsky was a very real case of someone who was constantly reacting to his environment, weighing up who he was when he started, where he wanted to be, and perhaps most importantly, how he wanted others to perceive him.”

The first step in Stravinsky’s journey to international acclaim began in St. Petersburg in 1909, with a fortuitous encounter with the impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Upon hearing a performance of the early orchestral work Feu d’Artifice, Diaghilev was excited at the discovery of a bright, new compositional talent. His driving goal was to bring the lustre and skill of Russian culture to Western audiences, and after impressing Parisians with a concert series, followed by a production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Diaghilev turned his attention to one of Russia’s most prized art forms: ballet. Despite Stravinsky being relatively unknown in Russia, and completely obscure everywhere else, Diaghilev commissioned the composer to score the Ballet Russes’s first completely original work, The Firebird, based on a cobbled together story drawing on Russian folklore. Stravinsky was just 26-years old.

The significance of this moment is particularly moving for Robertson. “The greatest accomplishments in the arts are truly extraordinary when you consider the overwhelming odds against them happening. As opposed to something like the sciences, where to some extent you’re looking out for things you could discover, and if one person doesn’t do it another person probably will, the arts require a very specific environment for them to flourish and survive,” Robertson observes. “The moment you have a person capable of creating something like Stravinsky’s ballets, that figure exists as a monument. They are timeless, ageless, immovable. But imagine for a moment that Diaghilev had contracted some 19th-century illness that had taken him away when he was a young man. I’m sure Stravinsky would have written something, but those milestones wouldn’t be there. It’s fascinating to look at the intersections of individual people, instead of the historical impulse that we tend to think of as driving the history of art forward.”

Fate came close to snatching away this crucial leg-up for Stravinsky. Four composers had already turned down the opportunity to score the ballet, including the highly regarded Alexander Glazunov, leaving Diaghilev exasperated and somewhat desperate. Engaging the untested Stravinsky was a gamble, but to say it paid off would be an understatement. The ballet opened on June 25, 1910; by the morning of June 26 Stravinsky was famous. Artists, socialites, intellectuals and aristocracy clamoured for his attention – his indoctrination into the bosom of the glamorous elite, where he would remain for the rest of his life. As he later wrote of the first performance, “I sat in Diaghilev’s box, where at intermission, dowagers, aged Egerias of the Ballet, intellectuals, balletomanes and artists appeared. I met for the first time Proust, Giraudoux, Paul Morand and more.”

In many of the composer’s own accounts of these early performances, there’s a sense of nonchalant humble-bragging. However, Robertson’s investigation of the original score reveals another image, of the young, enthusiastic composer anxiously offering a make-or-break work. It’s a compelling view of a man who is so often thought of as the aloof elder statesman of the intelligentsia. “As a gift, Boulez gave me the manuscript reproduction of Stravinsky’s Firebird score, which is absolutely beautiful, but one thing that’s particularly interesting is that you can see as he gets nearer to the end, as that deadline is fast approaching, the handwriting changes. It gets less neat and more urgent, the lines that were carefully ruled become these rapid slashes, and those tempo markings or instructions that were calligraphic perfection at the beginning become this scrawl,” Robertson explains. “You can see in the score what enormous pressure Stravinsky was under writing this piece. It’s an extraordinary document.”

You can see in the score what enormous pressure Stravinsky was under

Less than a year later, in June 1911, Stravinsky’s second ballet Petrushka – a work that in Robertson’s opinion is more musically radical than the Rite – cemented the composer’s reputation as a formidable talent. Here, Stravinsky showed a particular skill for articulating emotion and character through music. Based on the Russian equivalent of Punch and Judy, the puppet protagonists express rudimentary, childlike personalities. They are not completely developed, but fundamentally they share a connection to our humanity, and perhaps to even our most prized human quality, our souls.

English National Ballet’s Petrushka

At first glance, it’s Stravinsky’s departure from romantic ideals of emotion that separates The Firebird and Petrushka from their violent brother, The Rite of Spring. But viewed from a different angle, Robertson believes the paradigm shift heralded by The Rite, a piece that sparked riots and changed the way music was thought about forever, was an inevitable response to the societal flux brewing in Europe at the beginning of 20th century. Long distance travel had been made possible by the industrial revolution and an interest in exoticism from the Orient and Africa had become a popular fascination. Hedonism and bohemian intellectualism was harboured, even celebrated in cosmopolitan centres like Paris. Perhaps most importantly, the world was just a few short years from the Great War, which would permanently alter our understanding of brutality, a theme that by comparison The Rite of Spring is wholly naive about. In other words, this work, considered so ahead of its time, could likely only have appeared in that place and at that moment. 

“This piece ends up being a crossroad, but even more so like a meeting place of all of these different influences, the kind of thing the futurists were looking for, with their art of noise and the idea of sexual and political liberation,” Robertson explains. “The idea of this thaw in the forces that have been holding economies and societies in check, all having this tectonic shift, all of that is beautifully captured in a single piece of music, and the interesting thing is, Nijinsky, the choreographer, and Stravinsky, the composer, had their antennae perfectly tuned to the frequencies of the time.”

David Robertson conducts each of the three Stravinsky ballets with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in separate concerts between August 4 and 19. Click the buttons below for tickets.