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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

One hundred years ago, on May 29, 1913, a landmark of modern music was unveiled before a Paris audience, an audience that mercilessly, famously greeted it with boos, jeers and hisses. It was the premiere of the Ballet Russe's "The Rite of Spring."


SIEGEL: The setting was a primeval village whose annual ritual culminated in the choice and sacrifice of a young maiden. The choreographer was the company's legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. The composer of the score was in Seat M-20, young Igor Stravinsky. Years later, Stravinsky would be faulted for lacking the innovative spirit of his youth. But that night, a century ago, the Paris audience wasn't buying.


SIEGEL: This recording is by the San Francisco Symphony and its music director Michael Tilson Thomas who's also made a documentary about it. It's part of Tilson Thomas' "Keeping Score "series. And Michael Tilson Thomas joins us from San Francisco. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: My pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: Set the stage for us. What would a Paris audience or this audience in May 1913 reasonably expect at the premiere of a new ballet with new choreography and new music?

THOMAS: They would be expecting to see something colorful, exotic, with lots of leaping, lots of diaphanous costumes that would give you occasional lovely glimpses of gorgeous anatomy. That's not what they got.

They got a very dark piece with people writhing on the floor. They were all wearing dark costumes that looked like animal skins, and they had big, puffy sleeves. And, of course, there was a score, which was at that time being very courageously played but which must have been right on the edges of what was comprehensible to the musicians and the public.

SIEGEL: Let's back up a bit and start with what the audience first heard when "The Rite of Spring" was being introduced by the orchestra. They heard an instrument, which I gather, would be unrecognizable.


THOMAS: It was the sound of a bassoon playing in a very high register. But this sound had been heard before in other orchestral pieces in the French repertoire, especially, but it hadn't been heard so exposed as this. And moreover, it was playing all kinds of odd ornaments that suggested the breaking of an untutored voice and the whole time being accompanied by a horn playing below it in some remote key. It was very odd.


SIEGEL: What happened? How bad did it get?

THOMAS: Well, as the music was continuing, people began to shout out comments from the audience. Like when they saw a group of maidens dancing in an odd posture, they said: Somebody get her a dentist - things like that. And then people began to boo and hiss and kind of sing burlesque imitations of the music. And there was just a general murmur of disapproval that got louder and louder.

Stravinsky left his seat in the auditorium, made his way backstage and was able to observe on stage the ballet going on with Nijinsky standing in the side there also yelling out the counts to which the dancers danced - 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 - with these long numbers as loudly as he could because the dancers couldn't any more hear where they were in the music.


THOMAS: It can be a very unnerving experience. Something like this happened to me about 20 or 30 years ago. I premiered a piece of Steve Rice in Carnegie Hall. And the audience, again, became so restive, and people were screaming back and forth at one another. And again, I had to start saying the numbers of the piece very, very loudly. And when the piece ended, there was an instance of silence and then an avalanche of boos and calls and bravos.


THOMAS: And it was - I mean it was very, very startling. Of course, we went backstage and Steve was as white as a sheet. But I said: Steve, this is amazing. Nothing like this has happened since "The Rite of Spring" premiere. And I guarantee you tomorrow, everyone in the world will know that this took place.

SIEGEL: Which raises a perhaps perverse and Philistine question that I have about the premiere of "The Rite of Spring." Sometimes it strikes me as music's equivalent of the infamous Dewey-beats-Truman headline when the Chicago paper got the 1948 election wrong. That's been invoked ever since by hundreds of hopeless candidates early on election night.


SIEGEL: The jeering at "The Rite of Spring" can be invoked on behalf of some very interesting good music that's not well received at first, and also some totally cerebral music that is so private, so anti-melodic that frankly it doesn't deserve a re-listening.

THOMAS: Yeah. Well, I don't think the issue of cerebral or anti-melodic really applies to this case. What this is really about is a much more basic matter, which is that this is what can happen - what does happen in the world of the performing arts. Because whatever sensation, whatever riot, whatever frisson scandal may be created by a first performance, it really depends those decades later whether the audience still finds the piece to be an arresting and interesting journey to take.

SIEGEL: I gather from your "Keeping Score" film about this piece that it's difficult for the orchestra. I mean, this is a tough piece to play, yes?

THOMAS: You know, it used to be difficult. The thing is it's very gestural. You really get it into your bones. And young musicians today play this piece with terrifying ease. Of course, Stravinsky himself, when he sang his own music or when he played it a little bit - but mostly sang it at the point that I knew him - there was a wonderful gesture to his singing. And he had a kind of fractured solfege of this (unintelligible) with kind of hisses and noises that came between his teeth and a kind of gravelly sound that came from the back of this throat.

But really what he was after in "The Rite of Spring," I don't think to him this music was brutal music. I think it was just packed full of life and demanding a very elaborate and finely wrought execution.

SIEGEL: There's a moment when there is - what is it - 11 consecutive drumbeats, and I guess...

THOMAS: Oh, yes. Mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: of the great moments for bass drum players?

THOMAS: It's an extraordinary moment in music. It's an 11/4 bar. Not too many of those had been seen previously. And it's all just unison crunches - pram, pram, pram, pram...


THOMAS: And then it launches you into the wildest rhythmic music in the piece thus far, "The Glorification of the Chosen One," which is really a test for your musical mind and your sinews and muscles.


SIEGEL: I'm just curious. You talk about how Stravinsky would sing his music. It sounds like you could do a vocal representation of the entire "Rite of Spring." I mean, you've conducted this enough.

THOMAS: Oh, of course.

SIEGEL: Yes, you could. Yeah.

THOMAS: Yeah, I think it's possible to sing your way straight through "The Rite of Spring" because it has very continuous gestures. And perhaps the hardest part for the orchestra is the - you have to rest. It's not so hard to play the notes you have to play, it's just that there are very odd pauses in between them. And you have to be very good at listening to the thread of the rhythm (unintelligible).


THOMAS: And just you're part might just be to go up, up - tadah, ta, dah, dah. And you have to be just right in the placement of those notes. It's tricky.


SIEGEL: Well, Michael Tilson Thomas, thank you for talking with us about - also singing some of "The Rite of Spring" for us. It is even better when it's performed by the San Francisco Symphony with you conducting. Thanks a lot.

THOMAS: Thank you so much, Robert.



SIEGEL: You're listening to all things considered from NPR News.

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