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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The vernal equinox made it official this week. It's spring and the perfect excuse to play this.

(Soundbite of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring")

Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."

(Soundbite of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring")

Such a gentle beginning to a piece that roiled the world of music when it first appeared. Now, of course, it's considered one of the great classics. So in celebration of spring, we invited our music commentator Miles Hoffman to talk about it.

Miles, is it an exaggeration to say, as some will, that this piece of music changed music forever?

MILES HOFFMAN: Not only isn't it an exaggeration, it's not even strong enough, Renee. I would say that "The Rite of Spring" represents one of the greatest creative leaps in the history of music - actually in the history of any of the arts.

MONTAGNE: Well, that's some…

HOFFMAN: How about that?

MONTAGNE: And it involves some leaping on stage, actually.

HOFFMAN: Yes.

MONTAGNE: The very first performance, Paris 1913, was a ballet.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, the music was written on commission from Serge Diaghilev, the director of the Ballet Russes, and it caused literally a riot.

(Soundbite of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring")

As soon at the audience heard those strange, eerie, opening notes, there was whispering and booing. And then when the curtain went up and the actual dancing began, this is what the audience heard.

(Soundbite of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring")

The dancers were jumping up and down and they had their knees together in very untraditional ballet poses. It was weird looking. They were bouncing up and down to this. And this is actually called "Dances of the Young Girls, Augers of Spring." But, you know, it doesn't exactly sound like "Waltz of the Flowers."

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And people were, what, so upset that they drowned out, for the dancers, even the music itself?

HOFFMAN: Yeah. It got very loud. This ballet was choreographed by the great Nijinsky. The noise from the audience and the arguing and the fighting in the audience got so loud that he had to shout out the numbers to the dancers so that they knew what they were supposed to do. And eventually the police had to be called and the thing ground to a halt.

MONTAGNE: One musicologist has put it wonderfully well, the pagans on stage made pagans of the audience.

HOFFMAN: Right, and pagans because the subtitle of the ballet "Rite of Spring" is "Pictures from Pagan Russia." This is celebrating pagan rituals that eventually lead to the sacrifice of a chosen young woman to propitiate the gods of spring. So this is not what you would call a happy tale.

MONTAGNE: You can forgive the audience, though, couldn't you, because they hadn't experienced anything like this before? Not just the dance, but, I mean, certainly the music.

HOFFMAN: Well, except we also have to remember, Renee, that if there was a fight there were always two sides to that. So there were plenty of people who really wanted to listen and who were quite thrilled.

(Soundbite of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring")

Frankly, I think this is an important point about "The Rite of Spring." It is a shocking piece. It's a startling piece. It's still startling to us today when we hear it. But what it is not is a confusing piece. It's compelling. We're hearing irregular rhythms, we're hearing instruments asked to go to the extremes of their capability, but we're also hearing patterns that we recognize. There's contrast. There's continuity. There are fascinating harmonies. All the basic principles of what makes a piece of music work are all there.

(Soundbite of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring")

And that shows us the secret of Stravinsky's genius.

(Soundbite of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring")

MONTAGNE: Miles, as so often happens, the shock of the new gave way to a warm embrace. "The Rite of Spring" is now a classic.

HOFFMAN: Right.

MONTAGNE: How long did it take for the transformation to happen?

HOFFMAN: Not very long. And, in fact, the fact that there was a riot at the premiere is something that, unfortunately, composers who are not terribly talented point to and they say - when their pieces aren't well received they say, well, there was a riot at Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

MONTAGNE: Right.

HOFFMAN: Yes, but you're not Stravinsky, buddy. And very soon after "The Rite of Spring" - first of all there were more performances of it right away. By the '20s it had been played in the United States. It was all over the place.

And then in 1940, "Rite of Spring" got another big boost because Walt Disney used it in "Fantasia," a very grim section actually, where the dinosaurs wind up getting wiped out. But the piece essentially entered into the popular culture through "Fantasia."

(Soundbite of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring")

MONTAGNE: Miles, we've been talking mostly in this conversation about the stormy or overwhelming aspect of spring, the earth moving to bring forth new life.

HOFFMAN: Well, I don't think that's inappropriate. If you look at a super slow motion film of a flower bursting through the earth, it's really pretty violent. And spring - I like to think of this piece as a celebration of creativity, period. A new music is born, and sometimes births are violent.

(Soundbite of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring")

MONTAGNE: Miles, thank you very much for joining us.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is dean of the Petrie School of Music at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

(Soundbite of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring")

Hear more from "The Rite of Spring" and discover more great classical works at npr.org/music.

(Soundbite of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring")

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.

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