A guide to Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’

A quick guide to perhaps the most influential classical work of the 20th century – Stravinsky's ballet, 'The Rite of Spring'

Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

This evening, the BBC Proms will feature Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov. But why is the work so controversial? Here are a few facts to get you up to speed before tonight’s concert…


Stravinsky had been pondering the ballet for quite some time before 1913.

Several years before Stravinsky put pen to paper, the composer once recounted that he ‘had a fleeting vision … a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.’ Which is pretty much what the ballet itself is about.

The work was written for the Ballet Russes.

The great impresario Sergei Diaghilev was on the hunt for fresh talent – his interest was in staging new Russian works to introduce to western audiences. The Rite of Spring was first performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on 29 May 1913 with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and costumes and staging by Nicholas Roerich.

There’s no doubt that the music was hard-hitting for Paris’s bourgeoisie

Its complex rhythms and use of harsh dissonances would have been like nothing they would have heard before. There are frequent changes in time signature, creating a sense of instability. It’s restless, driven, energetic and often very dark. And all the while, the sound coming from the massive orchestra would have been quite overwhelming.

And so, understandably, the reaction to the Rite was extraordinary.

Although there wasn’t a riot as such, Stravinsky’s own recollections describe some very odd behaviour from the audience! ‘Mild protest against the music could be heard from the very beginning of the performance,’ the composer wrote. ‘Cries of “Ta guele (“shut up”) came from behind me.’ But among the catcalls were cries of ‘Genius! Genius’ from Ravel, while Debussy was trying in vain to calm everyone down.

There are quite a few incredible recordings of the piece.

Simon Rattle’s EMI recording with the CBSO packs a punch but isn’t rushed or performed gratuitously. This is a Rite with taste. But for sheer visceral excitement, Valery Gergiev’s performance on Philips with the Kirov Orchestra wins hands down every time.

One more thing…

Almost 30 minutes of The Rite of Spring features in hair-raising scenes in Disney’s Fantasia, including a bloody battle to the death between a group of dinosaurs. Some of the movements were rearranged to fit the action, but the use of The Rite in a children’s cartoon shows just how revolutionary and far-sighted Walt Disney actually was.

What’s on at the Proms tonight?

Prom 65, Friday 31 August, 7.30pm

Ravel La Valse
Berio Sinfonia
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring

London Voices
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Semyon Bychkov


The Prom will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3