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.
If one only need break a habit to merit being labeled revolutionary, then every musician who has something to say and who in order to say it goes beyond the bounds of established convention would be known as revolutionary. Why burden the dictionary of the fine arts with this stertorous term, which designates in its most usual acceptation a state of turmoil and violence, when there are so many other words better adapted to designate originality?
In truth, I should be hard pressed to cite for you a single fact in the history of art that might be qualified as revolutionary. Art is by essence constructive. Revolution implies a disruption of equilibrium. To speak of revolution is to speak of a temporary chaos. Now art is the contrary of chaos. It never gives itself up to chaos without immediately finding its living works, its very existence, threatened.
The quality of being revolutionary is generally attributed to artists in our day with a laudatory intent, undoubtedly because we are living in a period when revolution enjoys a kind of prestige among yesterday’s elite. Let us understand each other: I am the first to recognize that daring is the motive force of the finest and greatest acts; which is all the more reason for not putting it unthinkingly at the service of disorder and base cravings in a desire to cause sensation at any price. I approve of daring; I set no limits to it. But likewise there are no limits to the mischief wrought by arbitrary acts.
To enjoy to the full the conquests of daring, we must demand that it operate in a pitiless light. We are working in its favor when we denounce the false wares that would usurp its place. Gratuitous excess spoils every substance, every form that it touches. In its blundering it impairs the effectiveness of the most valuable discoveries and at the same time corrupts the taste of its devotees—which explains why their taste often plunges without transition from the wildest complications to the flattest banalities.
A musical complex, however harsh it may be, is legitimate to the extent to which it is genuine. But to recognize genuine values in the midst of the excesses of sham one must be gifted with a sure instinct that our snobs hate all the more intensely for being themselves completely deprived thereof.
Our vanguard elite, sworn perpetually to outdo itself, expects and requires that music should satisfy the taste for absurd cacophony.
I say cacophony without fear of being classed with the ranks of conventional pompiers, the laudatores temporis acti. And in using the word I am certain I am not in the least reversing myself. My position in this regard is exactly the same as it was at the time when I composed the Rite and when people saw fit to call me a revolutionary. Today, just as in the past, I am on my guard against counterfeit money and take care not to accept it for the true coin of the realm. Cacophony means bad sound, contraband merchandise, uncoordinated music that will not stand up under serious criticism. Whatever opinion one may hold about the music of Arnold Schoenberg (to take as an example a composer evolving along lines essentially different from mine, both aesthetically and technically), whose works have frequently given rise to violent reactions or ironic smiles—it is impossible for a self-respecting mind equipped with genuine musical culture not to feel that the composer of Pierrot Lunaire is fully aware of what he is doing and that he is not trying to deceive anyone. He adopted the musical system that suited his needs and, within this system, he is perfectly consistent with himself, perfectly coherent. One cannot dismiss music that he dislikes by labeling it cacophony.
Equally degrading is the vanity of snobs who boast of an embarrassing familiarity with the world of the incomprehensible and who delightedly confess that they find themselves in good company. It is not music they seek, but rather the effect of shock, the sensation that befuddles understanding.
So I confess that I am completely insensitive to the prestige of revolution. All the noise it may make will not call forth the slightest echo in me.