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The Writer’s Almanac for June 17, 2017: To Daffodils

June 17, 2017: birthday: Igor Stravinsky

It’s the birthday of Igor Stravinsky, born in Oranienbaum, a suburb of St. Petersburg, Russia (1882), to an opera singer father. He wasn’t a happy kid. He described his childhood as, “a period waiting for the moment when I could send everyone and everything connected with it to hell.” He didn’t have many friends and he didn’t do well in school, but he liked music. When he was two years old, he surprised his parents by humming from memory a folk tune he had heard some women singing.

Stravinsky’s first major success as a composer was a ballet based on a Russian folk tale called “The Firebird” (1909). It was wildly popular and he traveled all over Europe to conduct it, becoming famous. Then, one night, he got an idea for a ballet about a pagan ritual in which a virgin would be sacrificed to the gods of spring by dancing herself to death. Stravinsky drew on dozens of Russian folk songs for the melodies, but instead of using those melodies in any conventional way, he chopped them up and threw them together into a dissonant collage of sounds with a relentless off beat rhythm.

He composed the piece on a piano in a rented cottage, and a boy working outside his window kept shouting up at him that the chords were all wrong. When Stravinsky played part of the piece for director of the theater where it would be performed, the director asked, “How much longer will it go on like that?” Stravinsky replied, “To the end, my dear.” Stravinsky’s ballet was choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky one of the most experimental choreographers at the time. Instead of having the dancers leap gracefully about, Nijinsky ordered them to perform a primitive dance, bowing their heads and pounding their feet on the floor along with the rhythms of the music.

The theater director Sergei Diaghilev knew that the ballet could cause a scandal, and so he encouraged it. He deliberately invited people he knew would love the piece, and people he knew would hate it. He took an ad out in that morning’s newspaper, suggesting that this new ballet would provoke passionate discussions. And he gave orders to the conductor that the performance should go on to the end, no matter what happened.

But no one could have known how violently the crowd would react. It was unseasonably hot on this evening in May 1913, so it’s possible that the audience was more restless than usual. The audience sat quietly through the first several minutes of the piece, but when the music suddenly turned harsh and dissonant, people in the audience began to shout at the stage.

Fights broke out between the audience members. People who were enjoying the music attacked those who were booing. People spat in each other’s faces. Men exchanged cards in order to fight duels the next day. The police were called to remove hecklers between the first and second acts, but the disruption continued.

Stravinsky was so upset by the response that he left his seat in disgust. Nijinsky spent the performance standing on a chair in the wings, shouting out the counts to the dancers, who couldn’t hear the music over all the booing. The piece lasted only 33 minutes, but by the end, the audience had nearly erupted into a riot.

The event went down as one of the most legendary artistic moments of the 20th century. Like Woodstock, many more people claimed to have been there that night than could actually have been there. Almost overnight, Stravinsky became one of the hippest artists in the world. A year after its premiere, “The Rite of Spring” was performed without dancing, and when it was over, members of the audience carried Stravinsky out on their shoulders.

Stravinsky went on to compose many more pieces of music. He never waited for inspiration to compose. He said he kept banker’s hours at his worktable. After his early success, he began to compose colder, more intellectual music, though he also once composed a polka for a dancing elephant in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Igor Stravinsky said, “To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.”

And, “My music is best understood by children and animals.”