This is the thirteenth in a series of examinations of music legends and whether they are true or false.
Click here to view an archive of the previous music urban legends.
This is a special theme week! The theme this week is all legends involving Igor Stravinsky!
MUSIC LEGEND: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused a riot upon its first performance.
STATUS: Basically True
Besides being one of the most famous composers in the history of music (certainly one of the most famous of the past century), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was known for being a bit of a maverick.
Stravinsky first came to international fame in the 1910s with two ballets for his longtime patron, fellow Russian, Sergei Diaghilev, which were performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (the Russian Ballet, essentially).
These two ballets were The Firebird in 1910 and the Petrushka in 1911.
While both ballets were acclaimed when they debuted in Paris by the Ballets Russes, neither work exactly stood out besides the work of a standard excellent ballet composer.
It was the THIRD work in the trilogy, however, that would make Stravinsky’s name legendary (to the point where if he had died in 1914, we’d still be talking about him today, and the guy lived until 1971, for crying out loud!).
That work was 1913′s The Rite of Spring.
The Rite of Spring was so powerful that Stravinsky actually wrote Petrushka (a light ballet) as an almost remedy to the darkness that surrounded The Rite of Spring.
When the ballet debuted at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in May of 1913, the world did not know what it was getting into.
Almost right away, Stravinsky’s strident attempts at dissonance via the bassoons drove the crowd a bit batty. No matter how strong a performance is, if the audience is expecting a whole other type of performance, they will react poorly, and the audience definitely reacted poorly here.
However, as it is wont to do, history has exaggerated the extent of the crowd’s displeasure. When referring to The Rite of Spring, the performance is often recited as “Oh yeah, the ballet performance that led to a riot!”
There really was not a riot, per se, the crowd just reacted very negatively to the performance. The best example, I’d say, would be to the Bob Dylan’s World Tour in 1966, where the crowds were less than receptive to his new, electric sound (which, too, sounded strident and dissonant to the audience). In fact, I believe Dylan, himself, drew the comparisons to Stravinsky at the time when asked how he was handling the booing.
The choreographer of the ballet, Vaslav Nijinsky, actually had to shout out the counts to the dancers because they could not hear the music over the crowd. The Paris police arrived around intermission time to restore order, but they did not have a lot of success.
However, it’s important to note that the entire performance WAS done – if the problem was as dire as some later accounts made it out to be, how could they possibly have gotten the performance done at all?
That’s why I think it is more like Dylan’s 1966 tour, where the crowd was loud, angry and disrespectful, but the performance still got done.
Diaghilev was actually thrilled with the reaction, as he was a firm believer in the “any publicity is good publicity” school of thought.
The show went on for all seven scheduled performances in Paris, and those went by without incident, which I also think lends credence to the view that it was not THAT big of a deal at the time.
It then went on to London and eventually the United States, but by then, the myth of the piece was almost as strong as the piece itself.
Walt Disney personally chose the piece for inclusion in Fantasia.
If a piece of music can be included in a Walt Disney film, it’s probably not as strident as those initial May audience members would have us believe, even if it is in such an “at the time high brow” film as Fantasia.
MUSIC LEGEND: Stravinsky had a particularly cutting telegram retort to a request to have his worked altered by another musician.
STATUS: I’m Going With True
Stravinsky ended up moving to the United States around the beginning of World War II. While living in the country (ultimately becoming a naturalized citizen in 1946) and eventually setting up shop in Los Angeles towards the end of the war, Stravinsky did not exactly fully embrace the culture of his new country. While he was quite willing to be paid for his fame/genius, he was less willing to actually get all that involved in productions that did not meet his standards (don’t get me wrong, he’d produce strong work still, and he’d certainly cash the check – but if he did not find the project to be worth his while, he wasn’t going the extra mile, as it were).
Well, in 1944, Billy Rose, famed entertainer and producer, decided to do a sort of vaudeville production (more of a musical than vaudeville, but this was during the time when vaudeville theaters were trying to think of ways to still bring in the old vaudeville crowds who had abandoned them for movies) based on Gilbert Seldes’ 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts, where Seldes argued that the “low arts” like vaudeville were just as important as the “high arts” like opera.
So Rose hit upon the idea of having Cole Porter write a musical that is interspersed with examples of pretty much all the other lively acts. And for the ballet portion of the entertainment, who better than perhaps the most famous ballet composer of the century, Igor Stravinsky?
So he commissioned Stravinsky for a piece, and Stravinsky complied.
Well, Rose liked the piece and felt that it worked well while played on piano, but with the full orchestra, he found it a bit lacking, so he wanted to get Stravinsky’s permission to have Robert Russell Bennett, the famous arranger, who orchestrated the work of basically every famous Broadway composer of the day (Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter) AND the future (Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern), arrange Stravinsky’s piece for the orchestra.
To do so, Rose devised the politest telegram he could think of to send to Stravinsky in Los Angeles (the production was then in Philadelphis doing previews) to get his permission.
Do note, from here on in, we’re basically left to the reliability of Stravinsky historians. I’ve seen poorly written histories (you know, the type that just print up any story they hear and just prop “allegedly” in front of it or “according to legend”) that don’t get the exact details right, but I’ve also seen a great many quality historians repeat the same, more believable details of this telegram conversation exactly. I think, especially with something that has a real, clear record like a telegram conversation, that it is reasonable enough to believe that the following exchange is for real.
Rose sent the following telegram message :
YOUR MUSIC GREAT SUCCESS STOP COULD BE SENSATIONAL SUCCESS IF YOU WOULD AUTHORISE ROBERT RUSSELL BENNETT RETOUCH ORCHESTRATION STOP BENNETT ORCHESTRATES EVEN THE WORKS OF COLE PORTER
Stravinsky’s telegram response?
SATISFIED WITH GREAT SUCCESS
The work ended up only using bits and pieces of Stravinsky’s score.
MUSIC LEGEND: Stravinsky was arrested for adding a chord to the National Anthem.
Here’s a great picture that goes along with a great story.
In 1940, Igor Stravinsky was arrested by the Boston Police for adding a new chord to an arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner, which was in violation of a Federal Law that says that you can mess with the harmonization of the National Anthem of the United States.
It’s a great story and the visual is awesome.
However, it’s totally bogus.
Stravinsky DID have a problem with his re-arrangement of the National Anthem, but it was not in 1940, it was in 1944, and all the police did was tell him he had to remove the arrangement from his musical programme for the day, which he did.
The “mug shot” from 1940 is actually a photo taken for a visa application, during the time early in his stay in the United States where he was still living in the Northeast.
Man, this is an example where the truth just isn’t NEARLY as good as the lie!!
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org