Pierre Monteux and The Rite of Spring

The year was 1913.  The developed world stood on the brink of the great conflagration that would bring down the social, political, and power structures that had governed life for centuries.  Revolutions in knowledge of the physical laws of the universe, the workings of the human mind, and relationships between science and religion and between capital and labor, shook people’s inner and outer lives to their foundations and to their very core. Out of this great schism in the affairs of humanity was born the tumultuous world we live in today. And the arts, as always, were in the forefront of the uproar of the times. Many of the flashpoints in the history of modernism date from 1913, from the celebrated Armory Show of painting and sculpture in New York, to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.  But one event overshadows all others: the premiere, in Paris, on May 29, 1913, of The Rite of Spring.

It has been called the most important single moment in the history of twentieth-century music.  The evening began in conventional fashion, as Diaghilev’s celebrated Ballet Russes danced Les Sylphides to the approval of the belle-époque audience. But during intermission, a huge orchestra filed into the pit.  And shortly thereafter, the curtain came up for the first time on The Rite of Spring. The sweet Chopin of Sylphides gave way to Stravinsky’s revolutionary score: raw, dissonant, unprecedented in rhythmic complexity, almost oppressive in its ritualistic obstinacy.  In place of the graceful elegance of classic ballet, Nijinsky’s savage choreography had an old man kiss the earth and young people stomp, pound, fling each other across the stage, and ultimately force a sacrificial victim to dance herself to death. Protests from the audience started at once and quickly escalated to full-scale revolt. Fights broke out. Police were called. Backstage, Nijinsky stood on a chair, shouting cues to the dancers, who were unable to hear the orchestra over the din.

At the center of it all was one man, Pierre Monteux. Calm, collected, and professional, he had already brought the most complicated music anyone had ever seen, through seventeen careful rehearsals, to the level of clarity and transparency for which he would always be known, and at the premiere, under impossible conditions, guided it safely to its conclusion.  And though The Rite of Spring will always be the most famous of Monteux’s premieres, he did the same for many other challenging masterpieces of the early modernist period: Stravinsky’s Le rossignol and Petrushka, Debussy’s Jeux, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, to name a few.  The French use the word creation as a synonym for “premiere,” and thus would say that the conductor of a first performance “creates” the work.  English-speaking composers find this usage startling, but there is a strong element of truth to it, because the birth of a new work of art can be as important to its ultimate health and success as the birth of a new human being.  And Monteux’s gift for bringing new and difficult music to life, revealing its essence with clarity and confidence at first hearing, is a crucial part of his legacy.

Related Resources:

  1. The Armory Show of 1913
  2. The Ballet Russes
  3. Vaslav Nijinsky
  4. The Premiere: “Overture: 29 May 1913,” from John Canarina, “Pierre Monteux, Maître,” Amadeus Press, LLC (2003), reprinted by kind permission of the author.
  5. Photograph of dancers from premiere:
  6. On M. Monteux’s role in creating the piece as well as conducting the first performance: Robert Craft. “Le Sacre and Pierre Monteux: An Unknown Debt,” New York Review of Books (April 3,1975)
  7. On Monteux’s permanent identification with the piece: “50 Years on . . . Ovation for M. Monteux.” The Times (May 30, 1963)