This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Paris premier of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, an event regarded by history variously as either an avatar of or segue to modernism. That debut, to which the audience and critics reacted with such visceral disapproval, is routinely described as revolutionary. Stravinsky himself, in the first lecture of his 1939-1940 Charles Eliot Norton Professorship, rejected the label, both for himself and for art. The relevant passage from our publication of those lectures as Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons is below, along with a visualization of The Rite of Spring produced by composer, pianist, and software engineer Stephen Malinowski’s “Music Animation Machine.”
I am well aware that there is a point of view that regards the period in which the Rite of Spring appeared as one that witnessed a revolution. A revolution whose conquests are said to be in the process of assimilation today. I deny the validity of that opinion. I hold that it was wrong to have considered me a revolutionary. When the Rite appeared, many opinions were advanced concerning it. In the tumult of contradictory opinions my friend Maurice Ravel intervened practically alone to set matters right. He was able to see, and he said, that the novelty of the Rite consisted, not in the “writing,” not in the orchestration, not in the technical apparatus of the work, but in the musical entity.
I was made a revolutionary in spite of myself. Now, revolutionary outbreaks are never completely spontaneous. There are clever people who bring about revolutions with malice aforethought . . . It is always necessary to guard against being misrepresented by those who impute to you an intention that is not your own. For myself, I never hear anyone talk about revolution without thinking of the conversation that G. K. Chesterton tells us he had, on landing in France, with a Calais innkeeper. The innkeeper complained bitterly of the harshness of life and the increasing lack of freedom: “It's hardly worth while,” concluded the innkeeper, “to have had three revolutions only to end up every time just where you started.” Whereupon Chesterton pointed out to him that a revolution, in the true sense of the word, was the movement of an object in motion that described a closed curve, and thus always returned to the point from where it had started . . .
The tone of a work like the Rite may have appeared arrogant, the language that it spoke may have seemed harsh in its newness, but that in no way implies that it is revolutionary in the most subversive sense of the word.