Review Essay:

“Strange Rituals” The Rite of Spring in the 21st Century

There are few pieces in any orchestra’s standard repertoire quite like Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Sure, there are other works with more recognizable public profiles. The types of pieces so famous, so synonymous with the whole of classical music itself, that it’s hard to imagine someone who doesn’t know at least some bit of them. Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet may not have that precise type of cultural saturation, but its name and reputation are clearly enough on their own to earn the kind of notoriety and admiration required to headline the opening concerts of a new Symphony season.

Nijinsky’s faun carrying scarf (Photo Baron de Meyer, 1912)

Unlike, say, a work like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, where its opening measures definitely belong to that “synonymous with Classical music itself” category, so much of The Rite of Spring’s importance comes from its now-legendary, apparently riot-inducing opening night at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris on May 29th, 1913. The piece’s daring use of complex textures, rhythms, timbres, and its largely static structural scheme were so daring and bold, the crowd quickly broke into a growing wave of boos and hisses that led to several arrests—or so you might hear in a high school Music Appreciation class. In reality, it wasn’t for at least another decade before accounts of the premiere began referring to the crowd’s strong negative reaction as a “riot,” and in any case, the causes of the disturbance during The Rite’s premiere probably had to do with much more than just Stravinsky’s score, bold and novel as it was. Without a doubt, Nicholas Roerich’s stylized, “primitive” stage designs and costumes and Vaslav Nijinsky’s experimental choreography, which incorporated angular, Cubist-adjacent poses and loud rhythmic stomping, were almost certainly contributing factors to whatever aesthetic grievances the audience had that night.

Of course, The Rite of Spring didn’t come out of nowhere. Nor was The Ballets Russes a stranger to controversy to begin with. Nijinsky’s overtly erotic, similarly angular choreography for a ballet version of Debussy’s The Afternoon of a Faun exactly a year-to-the-date before the premiere of The Rite of Spring provoked a similar reaction, if not one that played out more in the press than at the premiere itself. To say nothing of the musical changes happening all around Paris, and elsewhere, including Vienna, where Arnold Schoenberg was in the middle of developing his own radical atonal style. What this shows is that the now-legendary response to Stravinsky’s ballet almost certainly had less to do with any individual aesthetic concerns related to the piece itself than with a broader cultural shift happening in Paris (and much of the rest of the world) at the beginning of the 20th Century.

In his great book on Classical Music in the long 20th Century, The Rest Is Noise, the music critic Alex Ross points out, for example, that the fractured nature of the Ballets Russes’ audience itself made this type of conflict inevitable. The wealthier Parisians, sitting in the box seats, came to the ballet out of something like a kind of class obligation—intending to relish in the classical and formal elegance of French ballet as it has existed largely throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. But the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and the cutting-edge ambitions of its impresario Sergei Diaghilev also drew in a younger, artsier (although possibly in some cases no less wealthy) crowd, for whom the music of older generations of French cultural elites seemed more like outdated relics. Though the program of the 29th of May, 1913 included far more than Stravinsky’s ballet, and its inclusion of the Glazunov orchestration of Chopin’s Les Sylphides, selections from Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, and Weber’s Le Spectre de la Rose suggests that Diaghilev and Nijinsky likely had this dual-audience in mind while preparing the program, it was ultimately not enough that night to keep the peace.

It might seem at first glance that this class/generational divide at the heart of the Ballets Russes’ audience was indeed playing out along lines of aesthetic disagreement, but I think that reading misses the point. The Rite of Spring, or The Afternoon of a Faun for that matter, needed nothing more than neither looking nor sounding like Swan Lake in order to provoke the response it did. The below passage from Thomas Forest Kelly’s chapter on The Rite of Spring in his popular book First Nights: Five Musical Premieres manages to capture an important distinction to be made in the reception of The Rite. Here he writes about the ballet in its context as ritual, as the piece’s title suggests.

Ritual music ought to reflect aspects of the rite: solemnity, well-understood tradition, a direct relation to the purpose. When the ritual we observe is familiar to us, the results are easy to judge: the proper actions are carried out, the appropriate words said, the deity invoked. The trouble arises with strange rituals: there we are observers, not participants, and we cannot really say whether the job is done properly.

Here I think he manages to frame the issue in an interesting way. The issue The Rite of Spring presented its audience wasn’t a musical one, per se. Its “problem” was that its music, its scenario, and its costumes were intended to fulfill a ritualized cultural practice rendered obsolete by its own underlying logic.

Foyer, Théâtre des Champs-elysées

That is to say, the idea of the legacy of French ballet as held by the wealthy Parisians who frequented the performances of Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and other similar venues imparted onto the act of attending the ballet a particularly powerful type of social and cultural importance. In its reproduction across time and multiple generations, this social and cultural importance took the form of ritualized practice, of attending the ballet, as Kelly argues.

All human ritual practice must be reproduced across time. It simply can’t exist otherwise. Rituals critically rely on a certain degree of familiarity, and yet to exist they must change. In a way, I think the problems that arise from this contradiction are an inherent element of conservatism in general, but in the context of the early 20th Century, the contradictions between the aging ruling class of the 19th Century and the generation of high Modernists replacing it were especially centered on problems of ritual. Modernism, which had been responsible for the development of the Nation State and the nationalistic artistic practices without which there would be no French ballet to attend, also demanded the privileging of “pure aesthetics,” without which it’s hard to imagine the radical experimentation in the music of Debussy, Stravinsky, et al.

In other words, it only looks like a fight about aesthetics, because the aesthetics themselves symbolize the underlying cultural logic, which can’t possibly bear the weight of its own importance. Nevertheless, when we talk about The Rite of Spring today, it’s always about its music—almost always performed as an orchestral piece, completely separated from its dramatic context. It’s always about how radical Stravinsky’s music was, about how the audience in the quaint old days were simply unable to handle it. And importantly of course how we today are enlightened enough to appreciate its value.

There’s some paternalism present in this attitude, of course, not dissimilar to how one might talk about a physician in the Middle Ages writing about the four humors or something. But I think it more pressingly reflects how we’re still preoccupied with similar questions of aesthetics and music, while even still ignoring questions about music ritual.

For my own part, I can’t remember another concert I’ve attended recently where questions about classical music performance and ritual felt more relevant than the Nashville Symphony’s Classical Series opening night last month, and not just because the headline piece was The Rite of Spring. Take for starters the opening minutes of the concert. A few minutes after 7:30, Maestro Guerrero hurries onto the stage and up to his podium. He doesn’t say a word, but raises his baton, turns to the audience for a moment, then suddenly sweeps both hands outward, giving a long, slow upbeat. The orchestra begins a rather sudden performance of the National Anthem, not indicated anywhere in the program. A few members of the audience stand up almost instantly, as if by instinct, and turn their gaze to the American flag tucked away at the far back of the stage close to the door where Maestro Guerrero entered. A handful of people in the crowd even sing along. The concert carries on with Julia Perry’s A Short Piece for Orchestra without remark almost immediately afterwards.

Laura Turner Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center (Note flag in back right corner)

It seems possible to me the performance was a late decision, perhaps in honor of the anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, but it nonetheless left me a bit puzzled. The whole time the anthem played, and maybe even well into the Perry, I found myself trying to remember if I had ever seen an orchestra concert begin with the National Anthem before. And this was puzzling not, I don’t think, because it struck me as a “strange ritual,” with no reference point. In fact, the opposite is true. It felt like every football game I’ve ever been to. I’m not so sure this is as much a problem or a crisis, as it is the first time I’ve ever noticed, to this extent anyways, that the ritual of Going to the Symphony had noticeably, meaningfully changed.

But the picture of this change is even more complicated, I think. Despite the fact that applause between movements is now almost a given, which I suppose might lead some conservative symphony goers to bemoan the death of decorum or something, the Classical Series remains fairly sharply delineated from other “pops” offerings from the NSO, whirlwind performances of the National Anthem notwithstanding. This is reflected not only in the repertoire itself, but also in how the Symphony frames its performances of these pieces and why it chooses the pieces it does.

For example, Guerrero has long been known for his practice of incorporating lesser-known works (and usually ones by living composers) alongside symphonic chestnuts, bragging that the Nashville Symphony has among “the most adventurous audience[s] in the world.” The inclusion of Perry’s A Short Piece for Orchestra on the program is clearly a part of this larger practice, though also related to another broader trend over the last several years largely centered on the so-called “reassessment” of the music of the brilliant Florence Price. Thomas May’s program notes point this connection to Price out directly. Others have written at length about the issues of this type of framing. I summarized this discussion in a review of a CD of Price’s music for the Music City Review last year, where I argue that much of this discourse is little other than marketing. Though I’m not interested in rehashing the entirety of that argument here, I think it’s important to reiterate that this “reassessment” narrative is completely ahistorical at best and profoundly offensive at worst.

On the subject of Perry’s “reassessment,” May’s program notes line out the “duty” of the symphony orchestra as follows:

Orchestras bring extraordinary imagination to making the great works of the past relevant for today’s audiences. But in addition to presenting the familiar repertoire…it is also an essential duty of performing arts institutions like the Nashville Symphony to rediscover music by composers who have been unjustly overlooked: “Pieces become part of the repertoire only because we play them and then let you, as the audience, decide on whether you’d like to hear them again.

I think that what’s interesting about this statement has relatively little to do with Perry, or any composer in particular at all. Rather, I think it’s easy to see here that the financialization of the symphony orchestra over the last several decades runs deeper than obliquely-racist reductions of a handful of composers into viral marketing. We’ve seemingly found ourselves in the midst of a completely “democratized” classical canon, where aesthetic value is nominally determined in the “natural” working out of various market pressures. Mind you, I don’t mourn the loss of “pure aesthetics” or some bologna as the main source of value for music. That idea was basically already dead, at least among younger cohorts of academics, by the 1970s. No, rather what troubles me is that I’m not really sure what kind of structural responses are even available to a problem like this.

The Music of Led Zeppelin with the Nashville Symphony
Described as “The Symphonic Rock Experience everyone is talking about!” the Nashville Symphony is featuring “The Music of Led Zeppelin” this June 25, 2023.

On the one hand, it’s obviously better for everyone involved that our cultural institutions be subject to the same democratic principles we extend (to some extent anyways) to our bureaucratic ones. However, in the same way that economic democratization isn’t achieved and is in fact made more difficult in the face of an increasingly neo-liberalized economy, there is no rational basis for believing you can possibly hope to do the same on the cultural front. This is because the market forces of a Capitalist system are designed to funnel money, i.e. power, increasingly to the top, not to distribute it in anything like an efficient system, and because this is a consequence of the structural logic of Capital itself and not the result of any individual action within that system, given enough time, enough time for the practice to become ritualized and fixed, this inequality is effectively inevitable. At the moment, the wealthy benefactors of the Nashville Symphony are convinced of the potential profitability of Perry’s music, so it is able to be performed. What happens when that support dries up? Who is to hold the wealthiest to account in this “democratic” marketized system? Sure, we have replaced one form of brutal elitism, but at what cost?

Without meaningful, systematic public support for artistic institutions, in a world in which they’re subjected to the same economic forces as the Tennessee Titans, the options an organization like the Nashville Symphony faces are either to be crushed into nothing or to become indistinguishable from the Tennessee Titans. The problem with this outcome is not even just the loss of symphony orchestras as we’ve known them, but the transformation of even more of the variety of this world to the grey sludge of “Content.” This trend is already pretty much completely played out in the world of streaming TV and movies, but now as Netflix looks to move into setting up physical locations to offer audience “experiences,” it’s clear we’ll see this same trend move well beyond the boundaries of the digital world.

File:Janus peter.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

I suppose it’s not hard to see then why the Nashville Symphony (or any other ensemble of its size) has no option but to try and “sell” us Stravinsky as (and these are Guerrero’s own words here) “heavy metal” or as aesthetically radical. This is obviously an unhelpful framing if you’re trying to get a historical perspective on the piece, because it is neither metal nor ultimately anymore “aesthetically radical” than much of the rest of the music written in its immediate context. It’s simply that the way we have ritualized the performance of this piece is, in part, to tell ourselves stories about the transformation of musical aesthetics in the early 20th Century. Undoubtedly this piece was a part of that transformation, but it was not a moment of singular rupture, met with the riotous anger of an unenlightened audience. So, if it’s not historical, then, much like the issue with the music of Price and Perry, it’s simply a question of finding the right marketing gimmick to keep the piece alive. And I do genuinely believe that the people who run the Nashville Symphony find this music valuable and worth keeping around. Why else would they even bother trying to market it in the first place?

Much like Diaghilev, those putting together orchestral programs in the 21st Century seem to be running into issues of an audience at cross purposes. There’s a subtle identity crisis at the core of the symphonic repertoire, that I imagine will only become more pronounced in the coming decades. For plenty of good reasons, the older cultural paradigm of cultural elitism has, if not disappeared, largely gone out of fashion in the classical music world. Good riddance. I think if you’re someone who loves classical music, the task now is to find literally anything other than branding to replace it.

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