Tag Archives: riots

The Rights (& Wrongs) of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

It has become something of a ritual for me at this time of year, just when I’m most eagerly anticipating the change of seasons, to attend a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and, most years, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra obliges me by staging one. Last night’s performance, conducted by Vasily Petrenko, was a triumph. Sufficiently blood-stirring to bolster me through however many weeks of winter we have left to endure.

There are a couple of legal stories associated with The Rite of Spring that I recalled only vaguely going in. But the excellent program notes by Don Anderson filled in some of the details. And, diligent law & the arts blogger that I am, I did a bit of research today to ferret out more.

The most interesting tale relates to its debut performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 29, 1913. Though most often performed as a concert today, The Rite of Spring was conceived and debuted as a ballet, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky and performed by the Ballets Russes. The combined effect of Stravinsky’s music and Nijinsky’s choreography was such a shock to the sensibilities of its first audience that it provoked what has been termed the best-known classical music riot in history. (How many contenders might there be for that honour? If you know any other stories that challenge the genteel image of classical music, please share them in the comments!)

Stravinsky wrote of the event: “Mild protests against the music could be heard from the beginning. Then, when the curtain opened on a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down, the storm broke.” Carl van Vechten, who was in attendance that evening, explained: “A certain part of the audience was thrilled by what it considered to be a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art, and swept away with wrath, began to make catcalls and to offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed.” Others chimed in with contrary views. The vociferous debate soon degenerated into fisticuffs in the aisles. The police were summoned but were unable to fully restore order. Some accounts assert that the police shut the performance down at the intermission, others that it continued on chaotically to the end. Subsequent performances were not similarly disrupted. In fact, they were ecstatically received, and ultimately the controversy surrounding the debut served only to further burnish Stravinsky’s rising star.

The Rite of Spring’s second brush with law involved courts rather than police, after it was prominently featured in Walt Disney’s 1940 animated film, Fantasia. At that point, Rite was in the public domain in North America, but it was protected by copyright elsewhere in the world, so Disney negotiated a licensing agreement with Stravinsky for a total of $6,000 to secure foreign distribution rights. Stravinsky was not impressed when he saw a preview of the film. He was unhappy with alterations that had been made to the music and he pronounced the performance of it “execrable.” But he did not seek legal recourse, whether because he believed the agreement he had signed precluded him from doing so or he was simply disinclined to litigate.

It was Boosey & Hawkes, music publishers who had purchased rights to the composition from Stravinsky in 1947, who took Disney to court decades later on the occasion of the release of the film on videocassette, alleging breach of contract and infringement of copyright in at least 18 countries. The litigation began in 1993 and continued for eight years, raising all manner of interesting issues about the jurisdiction of U.S. courts in international copyright matters, the effect of unforeseen technological advancements on licensing agreements, and the assignability of moral rights. Ultimately, however, after multiple court rulings, most but not all in their favour, Boosey & Hawkes settled for three million dollars.

To return focus to the music, here’s a bit of Rite-related viewing, courtesy of YouTube, to take you into the weekend.

Conductor Simon Rattle on Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring:

A recreation of the debut performance from the BBC drama Riot at the Rite:

And, finally, a snippet from the animated version in Disney’s Fantasia that Stravinsky found so objectionable: