The Rite

Bibliotheca Fantastica cover image“The Rite” appeared in Bibliotheca Fantastica, edited by Claude Lalumière and Don Pizarro, and published by Dagan Books in late June 2013. There are many ways to buy the book listed here.

Incidentally, the book was published just a couple of weeks after the centenary of “The Rite of Spring,” the orchestral work discussed in the story. (The premiere and world-famous riot happened in Paris on 29 May 1913.) That’s kind of cool!


When I started studying music at the University of Saskatchewan, my exposure to “classical music” had been limited to the Schubert, Schumann, Bach, and Mozart that my mother had sometimes played around the house (or, more often, hummed to herself). I was not a fan of it, though at some point in high school I’d gone through a Wagner period, being particularly interested in his “The Ride of the Valkyries” segment from his opera The Valkyrie.

But when it became clear that I would have to learn something about “classical music” at school (because there was no jazz program, and I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon) I began to listen my way through the Western musical canon with a vengeance. I developed an abiding disgust with the work of some composers (among them W.A. Mozart, Arnold Schoenberg, and Philip Glass) and, on the other hand, a deep fascination with the work of a few other composers, such as Johannes Ockeghem, J.S. Bach, Richard Wagner, Steve Reich. But foremost among the composers whose work I grew to love was Igor Stravinsky.

I must have listened to Le Sacre de Printemps (The Rite of Spring) thousands of times during my years in Saskatoon, tracking down as many performances of the music as I could, reviling what was done to it in the Disney film Fantasia, and wishing that someone would stage a performance of the full ballet, with the original (and infamous) choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky. (I still haven’t seen a live performance of it, though I am determined to do so someday, if I can.)

It was from Stravinsky that I relearned things I’d originally learned from musicians like John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy: that music could be violent and wonderful at once, and that violent music could also, at the same time, be intelligent, sinuous, and gorgeous. That music could simultaneously be refined and primal, and could reach down and touch a deep, instinctual place deep within us. That “art music” and “classical music” was more than the sleep-inducing stuff that the local music establishment was willing to select for performances, with their prim and proper renditions of Mozart and Dvorak and maybe a little little Mahler, if it didn’t offend the aging audiences who wanted candied melodies but, please, nothing too challenging. Though Steve Reich was the first composer I imitated in my own musical compositions, it was Stravinsky’s music that taught me the lessons I needed most.

Like many, the mythology of The Rite of Spring was part of the initial attraction for me. I was amazed that people had rioted at a ballet — even a ballet purporting to tell the story of a human sacrifice. It’s worth noting that people used to riot — or protest loudly, or make fun, or throw stuff at the performers — for musical performances in Europe a lot more than they do now. We perceive the riot over The Rite as historically unusual perhaps mostly because we no longer allow such things at performances.  We politely clap even for pieces we don’t like, or which we consider garbage.

I imagine the same insecurity that has been commented on a few times in the art world is probably at play in the world of music: the majority of people, being generally unacquainted in a deep way with in this sort of music, don’t actually have strong tastes for this or that work or composer, or, much less, vehemently against another composer or work: it’s just not that important to most of us, since we collectively don’t much care enough about “classical music” to bother to riot, or protest, or mock, or cheer.

But it was not always this way. Though the riot at The Rite ended up being the most famous in musical history–in part because the piece turned out to be so significant, but also because Stravinsky cleverly played up the significance of the riot as a career-boosting outburst of mythic proportions. Stravinsky was a wily, tricky fellow, as this wonderful essay explains.

And this is not only the fault of the audiences; composers are increasingly content to compose for tiny audiences, and are probably guilty of refusing to meet their audiences partway along. While poets quickly realized that if everyone wrote like Ezra Pound, most people would never read poetry, most contemporary “classical” musicians seem to have decided that an audience of a few thousand or hundred thousand worldwide is sufficient. They believe they are in the penthouse suite of artistic elevation, but what I see is a ghetto.

But for someone who cares about this kind of music, this is a depressing state of affairs. That is probably what drove me to image a hidden, secret cause to the riot at the premiere of The Rite: even if the truth is that we just don’t value artistic music (or other fine arts) anymore, it’s a little too depressing to accept.

Story Notes:

This story is something of a game, in that a reader who knows a little more than average about The Rite of Spring can be entertained not only by the story, but by the challenge of sorting what is real from what is invented. As usual for me, much more is historical than fantastical.

I will not ruin the fun too much, except to provide a link or two, and one or two more observations:

  • The stuff about Stravinsky’s use of a ton of Russian folk melodies in conjunction with his Turanian (Russo-primitivist) agenda in Le Sacre? Taruskin revealed many–but not all–of the pagan folk sources of melodies in The Rite in this paper. The folk-melody quoted first in my story is taken from there. (The stuff about boys or girls or a brother and sister kissing through branches in the “semitzkaja nedelja” is also from there, or perhaps from another paper by Taruskin. And yeah, it really does have an ancient, occult provenance. I didn’t make that part up…)
  • Oh, and that paper is the source of the photograph I mention in the story, which is this one:
  • While I trust the reader can track down the Boethius, Plato, and Kostova themselves, the obscure reference to Chinese musico-theurgical beliefs is from Bill Cole’s musical-biography John Coltrane. (Of which I don’t have a copy now, so I can’t quote the relevant bit, but it’s in there. Not the best Coltrane book out there, but it’s the first I read and the passage has stuck with me for decades.)
  • Saint-Saëns probably wasn’t at the premiere of The Rite of Spring, but all those other people? Yeah, they were. Carl Van Vechten had a young man beating the pulse of the music out on his head. Debussy and Ravel were seated on opposite sides of the hall. All that stuff, I didn’t make up, I swear. Personally, I doubt that it was Stravinsky’s music that sent Coco Chanel into Nazi collaboration/spying, but she was there too. (Indeed, there’s an interesting depiction of the riot, though historically inaccurate on several counts, at the beginning of the film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, which purports to deal with the romantic relationship between Chanel and Stravinsky.)
  • I’ll say it again: Stravinsky was a wily old devil when it comes to the self-conscious cultivation of the mythology surrounding his artistic life. Which is to say, when one reads what Stravinsky had to say about his life, his work, or his history (as in Robert Craft’s Memories and  Commentaries), one must regard it as having been put forth by an especially unreliable narrator. Not just his caginess about the folk-music sources for The Rite, or about the relationship between the narrative conceived by him and Roerich worked out, and the musical content involved, but also the very notion that the ballet was the cause of the riot, and not the shocking choreography–a notion consciously promoted by Stravinsky, whose career was helped by the notoriety though in fact at the premiere, most people couldn’t hear the music very well at all amid all the noise and mayhem.
  • Oh, and yes, Stravinsky did re-bar some of The Rite after that first performance. That, too, I did not make up, though I cannot remember where I read it. I don’t know how extensively the piece was re-barred, but he did do some of it, at least.

The Ballet:

If you haven’t seen it, here’s a performance by the Kirov Ballet, using a reconstruction of Nijisky’s choreography and of the original set:

When you watch, imagine the audience rising to their feet, shouting, throwing things at one another, fisticuffs breaking out, the dancers confused, the choreographer backstage crying out the beats and steps… the chaos, ah, the chaos.

Fun stuff.


“At all costs, I’d avoid the world in Gord Sellar’s ‘The Rite.’ This will sound vague but will become clear when you read the story: As a musician, I know the sorts of forces Sellar explores in ‘The Rite’ have a basis in reality, and so the story isn’t as fantastic (i.e. grounded in fantasy) to me as some of the others. It’s downright terrifying.”

— Don Pizarro, editor, in an interview with Haralambi Markov

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