One spring evening in 1913 the intelligentsia of pre-war Paris gathered at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées to see & hear a sensational new ballet. The ballet, put on by famed Russian Impresario Serge Diaghilev, was something to see: Diaghilev's idea of how primitive man got ritually excited, come springtime. The accompanying music, a boisterous, tom-tomming, banshee-wailing symphonic hullabaloo by Music's No. 1 Bad Boy, Igor Stravinsky, had even more oomph than the ballet.
Of the music, except when it was going full blast, the audience actually heard little. For, by the time the opening bassoon bleats of Le Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring) got under way, half the audience was hooting disapproval while the other half was hooting down the hooters. Said one of them later (Carl Van Vechten): "I was sitting in a box. ... A young man occupied the place behind me. . . . The intense excitement under which he was laboring . . . betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time. They were perfectly synchronized with the beat of the music."
As the years passed, Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps bid fair to be the most fought-over composition of the 20th Century. One English critic described it as "a threat against the foundations of our tonal institutions," declared that it should have been dedicated to Dr. Crippen, a dentist celebrated for murdering his wife, cutting her body in pieces. But dapper, energetic Igor Stravinsky found himself the most influential composer of his generation. To younger composers the Sacre became music's Declaration of Independence. By 1920 nearly every musical youngling was throwing over his counterpoint for Stravinskian grunts & groans. To be caught in public with a pleasant tune was as embarrassing to a composer as to be caught without his pants. Every cacophony known to man was rooted out and set to music. Audiences shivered, but in vain.
Like his good friend Painter Pablo Picasso (who invented and then threw over cubism), Igor Stravinsky soon abandoned his followers. He took to ransacking 18th-Century fugues and roundelays, writing distorted imitations of Bach and Handel. None of his later compositions created anywhere near the fuss & feathers that the Sacre did, but Stravinsky remained the greatest ballet composer of modern times, and one of the half-dozen most important symphonic composers of the 20th Century. With audiences nowadays he is popular chiefly for two early ballet scores: Petrouchka (1911) and the orchestral suite from his fairy-tale ballet The Firebird (1910).
Last week Stravinsky, guest-conducting Frederick Stock's Chicago Symphony, gave Chicagoans a taste of his own music: The Card Party, The Firebird. The audience loved it, but critics found that, since the Sacre, Composer Stravinsky had come a long way downhill.