Last month the classical music world celebrated an important milestone: one hundred years ago on May 29th, Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, or The Rite of Spring, was first performed. For most people, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring means Disney’s Fantasia and dinosaurs. But decades before the movie was ever conceived, the inaugural performance of The Rite in the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris caused a cultural uproar including a near riot in the audience that almost stopped the performance midstream. 

The Rite was the third of Stravinsky’s large scale ballet scores for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The first two ballets, the Firebird in 1910 and Petrouschka in 1911, were triumphs and quickly catapulted Stravinsky into the top echelon of classical composers of the day. The Rite was commissioned for the 1913 Paris season with original choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, with stage designs and costumes by Nicholas Roerich. The concept for the piece was developed from composer’s idea of “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts.” The plot centers on several primitive rituals celebrating the advent of spring ending with a young girl being chosen as a sacrificial victim ultimately dancing herself to death in the composition’s closing bars.

Stravinsky’s Rite was not the only revolutionary work of its time.  The year before Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg premiered his work Pierrot Lunaire (“Moonstruck Pierrot” or “Pierrot in the Moonlight”). Schoenberg’s work is a setting of twenty-one poems for soprano and chamber group. What made Pierrot so revolutionary was Schoenberg’s abandonment of traditional tonic-dominant harmony for atonality, literally music without a central key or scale.   

But the Rite is arguably the more revolutionary work. Good friend Frank Ticheli, composer in residence at U.S.C., believes that the Rite is the more important of the two because of the composition’s size and scale. “It’s as if Stravinsky took traditional orchestration and forms, and tossed them out the window. His use of new and very sophisticated harmonic, rhythmic, and metric structures combined with traditional Russian and Lithuanian folk melodies was nothing short of revolutionary.”

To point, the score features dissonant harmonies that would only reappear decades later in various jazz works. Juxtaposed against these new, startling harmonies were deceptively simple Lithuanian and Russian folk tunes. Above all, however, the Rite introduced the powerful and innovative concept that rhythm could completely dominate a musical work over melody and harmony, the tradition of which had existed for over a thousand years in western music. Even the opening melody scored for solo bassoon in the high register was revolutionary for its time in that the instrument literally lacked the keys to be able to accurately play the part. Not surprisingly, makers of the instrument quickly adapted its hardware to be able to perform the piece. With those opening bars, Stravinsky set the stage for the revolutionary music that would follow–and music as the world knew it would never be the same.  

As for that ill-fated initial performance, Pierre Monteux, famed conductor of the premier, went on record after the fact saying that the trouble in the audience began soon after the opening bars. Two opposing groups in the audience—one made up of traditionalists who were appalled by the performance and the other, a more radical group who embraced any new work–began attacking each other. Soon their mutual anger was directed towards the orchestra. Monteux wrote, “Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on.” Some forty of the worst offenders were ejected from the hall but amazingly enough the performance continued without interruption. During the second part of the work, the audience calmed down considerably with the final “Sacrificial Dance” viewed in near silence. In the end Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Monteux, and the orchestra and dancers received several curtain calls.  
Since that time the Rite has influenced every genre of music including the likes of jazz, heavy metal, rap, and hip-hop. To me it’s the most important—and influential–piece of music in the last century. 

As of 2012, there were over 100 different recordings of the Rite available making it one of the most recorded of all 20th century compositions. Here are some of my favorites.

1. Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky, Columbia Symphony Orchestra: Stravinsky’s own interpretation of his masterpiece. 
2. Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic: arguably the most dramatic performance ever recorded. 
3. Seiji Ozawa conducts the Chicago Symphony: a high powered performance by a young Seiji Ozawa and the brilliant Chicago Symphony. 
4. Lorin Maazel conducts the Cleveland Orchestra: a great performance of the Rite and arguably the most life-like recording available.