May 29, 1913.
Paris was in the mood for scandal and Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, had promised "a new thrill that will doubtless inspire heated discussion". Who knows what really happened that night at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées? Who knows whether the howls and hoots, the outlandish insults and punch-ups that purportedly drowned out the premiere of The Rite of Spring – music by Igor Stravinsky, choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, sets and costumes by Nicholas Roerich – were as fabulously riotous as legend would have it? Who knows whether Diaghilev egged the whole thing on as an ingenious publicity stunt? After the performance he told Stravinsky it had been exactly what he wanted.
Certainly a reaction was warranted. The Rite wasn't just new: it was a revolution. It was violent and vivid and confusing, a primitive pagan ritual in which a young maiden dances herself to death. Nijinsky's choreography was weird and ugly, inverting the elegant out-turned feet of classical ballet and making his pigeon-toed dancers stomp and shuffle. Later he described it as "the soul of nature expressed by movement to music, really the life of the stones and the trees. There are no human beings in it. It is a thing of concrete masses, not of individual efforts."
And the music? If the audience hadn't been so busy misbehaving they'd have heard that strange, strangled bassoon opening, those juggernaut dissonances, those ferocious surges of rhythmic and harmonic force. All the basic material was familiar enough: tonal chords piled on top of each other, regular rhythms spiked with odd, thrashing accents, traditional Russian folk tunes lifted and mutated (though Stravinsky – a shameless self-mythologist – of course never admitted the provenance).
In any case, it's hard to overstate the influence that The Rite of Spring unleashed on subsequent generations, and as the centenary of that storied premiere approaches artists around the globe are grappling with how to best to commemorate its seismic impact.
Many orchestras are simply performing the score, as the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will do next week under its artist-in-association Matthias Pintscher. Pintscher has also written a new work for the occasion, a double concerto for two trumpets inspired by what he calls "one of the most striking and eerie parts of the Rite. Two muted trumpets share a dialogue and try to meet but never do. I always have this image of a Janos face: one sound, one instrument that goes in two different directions at the same time."
A couple of days later members of the orchestra decamp to Tramway for a Rite-inspired collaboration called Monad: music, dance and lighting by students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, costumes and sets made at the Glasgow School of Art, instrumentalists from the BBC SSO and the RCS. Jay Capperauld is one two RCS students charged with creating a new score for Monad, and told me how "the idea of life and death came to the fore when we were discussing which of The Rite's themes we wanted to work with. Nijinsky called it a 'biological ballet', so looking at the environment and the future felt like a relevant response for us. The earth itself becomes the sacrificial maiden."
"As a contemporary composer it's impossible to ignore this piece," he says. "It's a half-hour that completely changed music. I'm influenced by a lot of jazz and heavy metal, and Stravinsky had a huge impact on both: in a way the Rite was the first piece of heavy metal. It gives me the same thrill, the same rush of blood and adrenalin."
At Tramway this coming weekend is a new work for narrator, dancer and cellist by director/actor Rob Drummond. It's called The Riot of Spring – "and it doesn't really matter to me whether or not the riot at the premiere was exaggerated," says Drummond. "Whatever serves my story today is what I choose to believe. That's the beauty of theatre. It doesn't have to be true."
Where the original ballet was subtitled Scenes from Pagan Russia, Drummond has called his Scenes from Secular Britain. "I honed in on the nature of struggle, clashes, dissonance and violence in the piece." He came across a more prosaic struggle in the process: "Originally I wanted to use just the cello part from Stravinsky's score, but his publishers wouldn't allow it. We could either employ an entire orchestra to play the entire score or nothing at all." In the end Drummond asked cellist Peter Nicholson to created a new score using some of the folk songs incorporated in The Rite (those, at least, can't be copy-written ) but also worked with that extra dimension of struggle against authority. "There are moments where Peter plays with the wrong side of the bow, kind of playing but not playing, while the performers dance but don't dance. Wasn't it Stravinsky himself who said that 'the more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit'...?"
Of course there's much, much more when it comes to centenary celebrations across the country – even just within Glasgow the GSA is curating a series of events including a "drummed interpretation of the Rite" in the Underground Car Park at Flemming House and "quiet, contemplative artworks" installed at Tramway's Hidden Gardens. What's striking to me is the incredible spectrum of responses to a work that's about to turn a century old. Whatever did happen that night at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, The Rite of Spring remains as provocative as ever.
Rob Drummond's Riot of Spring is at Tramway tomorrow and Saturday. The BBCSSO performs The Rite of Spring at City Halls on May 16. MONAD is at Tramway on May 18. The GSA's 1913: RITE OF SPRING exhibitions and events are at various venues from May 10-25.