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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 Aristocratic Maximalism
Richard Taruskin

That terror was something that the audience felt—and can still feel, if the orchestra can refrain from showing off the ease with which, nearly a century later, it is now possible to perform Stravinsky’s music. The alliance of the music with the stage action and the romantic neoprimitivist ideology that the action embodied makes it possible to continue to speak of Stravinsky’s music as “maximalist.” Despite its extreme novelty, at least so far as the Paris audience was concerned, its expressive aims were intelligible, indeed familiar.

The Reaction

ex. 3-33 Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (piano four-hands arrangement), “Sacrificial Dance”

And yet, as already noted, past a certain point a difference of degree can be—and past another point, can only be—perceived as difference in kind. In The Rite of Spring the expressive ends were so fundamentally transformed by the composer’s and the choreographer’s radicalized expressive means that they could no longer be confidently taken as “traditional” or “accepted.” Not only was the audience distracted from the ballet’s ancient and time-honored themes by the modernity (to them, the ugliness) of the style with which they were confronted. No less significantly, the composer and the choreographer, by insisting so on the terror of Mother Nature rather than the beauty of human nature, projected a thoroughly alien expressive ambience, alien to all humanistic thought in its brutally dehumanized mien.

The choreographer was Nijinsky, the greatest dancer of the day, but (at the age of twenty-three) still a novice at direction. It was his contribution—now lost, despite strenuous efforts at revival—that, taken as incompetent, was chiefly responsible for the notorious fiasco at the ballet’s premiere. The audience’s very voluble rejection of the work has become a legend. “The real thing—a big ‘Paris’ scandal,”33 critics marveled or scoffed, something to set beside the fiasco of Tannhäuser half a century before. And the reasons were similar: the ballet audience expected one thing and got another. Then, it was a short divertissement in the first act, rather than a full-dress second-act operatic ballet. Now, it was prehistoric peasants on stage, instead of sylphides and wilis, stamping on the earth rather than soaring aloft from it. (And, although no reviewer mentioned it, it might also have been a ballet orchestra that contained no harp!) What could be read as maximalism in expressive terms was, in more narrowly balletic terms, read as mere disfigurement. No wonder, as Stravinsky laconically reported in a letter home, “things got as far as fighting.”34 But it was not his music as such that offended, let alone fomented a “riot.” It was not even the primary object of the audience’s attention that fabled night of 29 May 1913. Many if not most of the reviews failed to deal with Stravinsky’s contribution at all beyond naming him as composer; as one of the reviewers candidly admitted, “past the Prelude the crowd simply stopped listening to the music so that they might better amuse themselves with the choreography.”35 When the music was heard again a year later, by itself, in a concert performance under the same conductor (Pierre Monteux) who had officiated at the premiere, the composer enjoyed the greatest triumph of his career.

The Reaction

fig. 3-5b Stravinsky’s sketch for Danse sacrale (The Rite of Spring, end of second tableau).

The Reaction

fig. 3-6 Drawings by Valentine Hugo (née Gross, 1887–1968) of Maria Piltz as the Chosen One in Danse sacrale, coordinated with the accompanying music. The huge, unwelcome contrast between the heavy earthbound steps Nijinsky choreographed for his dancers and the older ballet ideal, exemplified by the winged, ethereal Carlotta Grisi in Giselle (Fig. 3-1), was the shock that triggered the famous riot at the premiere of The Rite of Spring.

But even among those who hailed the music as a masterpiece were those who perceived a baleful message in the ballet. “Ce ballet est un ballet biologique,” declared Jacques Rivière, the editor of the Nouvelle revue française, Paris’s most sophisticated literary and intellectual journal: “This is a biological ballet.”36 The adjective summons up a variant of neoprimitivism called biologism, one of the bleakest, most antihumanistic of all philosophical visions. Primitivism, the belief that what is least mediated by modern society—children, peasants, “savages,” raw emotion, plain speech—is closest to the truth, was compatible with all the noblest aspirations of romanticism. Biologism was something else. Skeptical of all humane ideals, it held life to be no more than the sum of its physical facts and drives: birth, death, procreation, survival. Anything else, it averred, was mere ornament and palliative, a lie. The movements Nijinsky had choreographed for the corps de ballet, the collective, anonymous “body” of dancers, was in Rivière’s terrible opinion

not just the dance of the most primitive man, it is also the dance before there was man. There is something profoundly blind in this dance. There is an enormous question being carried about by all these creatures moving before our eyes. It is in no way distinct from themselves. They carry it about with them without understanding it, like an animal that turns in its cage and never tires of butting its forehead against the bars. They have no other organ than their whole organism, and it is with that that they carry on their search. They go hither and thither and stop; they throw themselves forward like a load, and wait. Nothing precedes them; there is nothing to rejoin, no ideal to regain. Just as the blood within them, without any reason save its pumping, knocks against the walls of their skulls, so they ask for issue and succession. And little by little, by dint of their patience and persistence, a sort of answer comes, that is also nothing other than themselves, which also meshes with their physical being, and which is life.

It was the great thrust of the nineteenth-century science of anthropology to demystify mythology, to demote myths from the status to which post-Wagnerians and Symbolists wished to reelevate them, to that of metaphor for grim biological realities. It was the project of Sir James Frazer, for example, in his encyclopedic study of the myths of the world called The Golden Bough (1890), to strip away the anecdotal content of myths and the metaphorical content of rituals to reveal the ruthless rites of propitiation that lay behind them—the very thing that The Rite of Spring exposed. It was a threat not only to poetic mythologism but to the sanctity of revealed religion as well, especially Christian religion, for it reduced the Holy Eucharist to a cannibalistic rite no different from those practiced by any number of “savage” tribes. It was all too easy to draw a horrifying parallel between the culminating virgin sacrifice in The Rite of Spring and the sacrifice commemorated in every Christian service.

But was that Stravinsky’s fault? Or was it just a part of the staging, the part that, once removed from the music, no longer encumbered it? Beginning with that first triumphant performance in 1914, Stravinsky’s ballet has been heard far more often in the concert hall (not to mention its countless recordings) than in the ballet pit. Stravinsky himself went on record as saying that that was how he preferred to hear it. In fact, in 1920 he gave an interview to a Paris reporter in which he denied that his music was “programmatic” at all. “Its embryo,” he claimed,

was a theme that came to me while I was finishing Firebird. Since this theme and what followed from it were conceived in a stark and brutal manner, I chose as a pretext to develop them the evocation of prehistoric Russia, since I am Russian. But note well that the idea came from the music, not the music from the idea. I have written an architectural work, not an anecdotal one.37

There was hardly a word of truth in this, and of course Stravinsky knew it. By 1920, as we will see in a later chapter, he had reasons for wishing to deflect attention from the original subject matter of the ballet and to call attention instead to its form. But can subject matter really be so easily divorced from form, in this or any work of art? Or does the music’s reliance on throbbing ostinatos, on arbitrary arrangements of “hypostatized,” nonprogressive harmonies and rhythms, and on inscrutable metrical situations that make the future unpredictable and memory useless already inscribe and participate in the great strip-down from culture to nature, from individual reflection to collective action, from psychology to automatism, ultimately from humanism to biologism, that the ballet presents and even seems to celebrate? Is the utter lack of pathos, the withholding of sympathy from the Chosen One, merely an aspect or product of the “anecdotal” content of the work, or is that pitilessness already implicit in the music itself, its form and its technical procedures?

One who felt the music to be complicit in the parlous message and inextricable from it—and hence that there was no “music itself”—was Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (1903–69), an influential German social philosopher whose extensive musical training impelled him to seek evidence of social attitudes in music. He was appalled by The Rite because of the way it seemed not only to portray but to perpetrate the annihilation of the ego, the seat of conscious reflection and moral decision. Even the performers, he thought, must submit to this process. The rigorous precision Stravinsky’s difficult rhythms required for their coordinated execution ruled out any spontaneous modification of tempo such as conductors employ for purposes of expressivity. The composer constrains—and dehumanizes—his performers just as surely as the primitive tribe constrains the sacrificial maiden, he suggests. The task of realizing Stravinsky’s “fluctuations of something always constant and totally static” reduces the conductor (shades of Petrushka!) “to puppet-like motions,” and conveys to the listeners as well as the ballerina “the immutable rigidity of convulsive blows and shocks for which they are not prepared through any anticipation of anxiety.”38 Adorno wrote these words in 1948, in a book called The Philosophy of New Music. The Rite of Spring was already thirty-five years old, and accepted everywhere as a twentieth-century classic. By 1948, however, Adorno felt that events had grimly vindicated his reading of the ballet’s sinister elevation of an unreflective collective mentality over individual conscience. Those events included the rise of fascism, which Adorno felt to have been prefigured in Stravinsky’s dehumanizing music, and the Second World War.

Did Stravinsky’s music prefigure fascism? Can any music do such a thing? Does it affect the question to know that between the world wars Stravinsky was indeed a “fascist sympathizer”? What are the implications of such questions for performance and criticism? We seem to be dealing with another “Wagner problem.” And just as with Wagner, there would be no problem were the music not a supremely compelling artistic achievement.


(33) Leonid Sabaneyev, “Vesna svyashchennaya,” Golos Moskvï, 8 June 1913.

(34) Stravinsky to Maximilian Steinberg, 3 July 1913; in I. F. Stravinskiy: Stat’i i materialï, ed. L. Dyachkova (Moscow: Sovetskiy kompozitor, 1973), p. 474.

(35) Louis Vuillemin, “Le Sacre du Printemps,” Comoedia 7, no. 2068 (31 May 1913); in Truman C. Bullard, “The First Performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps,” Vol. I (Ph.D. diss., University of Rochester, 1971), p. 144.

(36) Jacques Rivière, “Le sacre du printemps,” La Nouvelle revue française, November 1913; Bullard, The First Performance, Vol. III, pp. 271, 274.

(37) Michel Georges-Michel, “Les deux Sacres du printemps,” Comoedia (11 December 1920); Bullard, The First Performance, Vol. I, pp. 2–3.

(38) Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music (1948), trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), p. 155.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003011.xml