U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A nice bit of interdisciplinarity–The Rites of Spring

While on a university committee a couple of years ago, I read numerous criticism and praise of interdisciplinary research and teaching, but I found concrete examples of it excellently performed much less available. So when my off-time radio listening crossed my academic world a few months ago in this very promising bit of interdisciplinarity, I got very excited.

Let me introduce the event in question. Both Modris Eksteins’ The Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age and Radio Lab’s episode “Musical Language” try to explain the violent riots that occurred in Paris following the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rites of Spring” in May 1913. Elegant concert goers jumped out of their seats and started throwing things. Someone off to the side of the stage had to yell the count of the dance, because the dancers could not hear the music over the screaming of the crowd. The riots turned into wide acceptance of the second performance less than a year later, March 1914. The music used new combination of notes that did not reconcile like all previous music. The ballet illustrated a virginal sacrifice and used movements borrowing from societies that later fed the “primitive” vogue in Europe after WWI. The dancers movements were not all elegant.

Eksteins uses the ballet as a case study/metaphor for the historical and political transition into the Modern Age and to do a cultural study of Germans, the British, and the French (and to some extent the Americans) as they entered WWI. RadioLab suggests that brain chemistry–what goes on in the brain when it hears discordant notes–could explain the rioting and that physiological changes in the brain that may have made a Parisian audience ready to hear and love Stravinsky’s symphony nine months after their riots.

RadioLab discusses a connection between music and emotion. Mark Jude Tramo, a neuroscientist at Harvard, listens to electricity that runs from the ear to the brain in response to a sound. Even and regular meter of the electricity arrives in our mind as something we like (consonant). If the electricity is in an irregular, jagged meter it is heard by our brain as something we don’t like (dissonant). What we find pleasant and unpleasant is malleable. While the audience rioted in response to the music at the first performance of The Rites of Spring, by the second concert, Parisians knew what to expect. The science writer Jonah Lehrer interprets this difference for RadioLab based upon the way the dissonant sounds acted on the audience’s brain trained by 19th century Romanticism. When we hear noises we’ve never heard before, dissonant chords “illicit wild fluctuations in brain activity” (Jan Fischman, neuroscientist). Gangs of neurons, the new noise department, get very agitated by dissonant chords and their job is to dissect and understand new noises. Every so often they fail, like they did that night, failing over and over b/c the Rite of Spring is dissonant all the way through. Chemical consequences in the brain–the release of a lot of dopamine–means that the euphoria turns literally into schizophrenia. People went mad because the music made the neurons fail to order it, releasing too much dopamine, driving the audience crazy.

During the second concert, the audience was ready to hear the patterns that Stravinsky had hidden within the music. The audience carried Stravinsky out of the theater on their shoulders. The response by the audience and the press was glowing the second time. Neurons learned and adjusted.

In his 1989 text, Modris Eksteins offers a very different interpretation, using history, politics, and culture rather than the processes of individual brains. (I’m going to offer several quotes, because I love Eksteins’ writing and because it’s been several years since I read the text).

The book was then at the vanguard of cultural history and reception studies (and offers a very powerful template for them):

In modern society, as this book will argue, the audience for the arts, as for hobbits and heroes, is for the historian an even more important source of evidence for cultural identity than the literary documents, artistic artifacts, or heroes themselves. The history of modern culture ought then to be as much a history of response as of challenge, an account of the reader as of the novel, of the viewer as of the film, of the spectator as of the actor.

He writes that there were two factions ready to war in the audience:

Of the crowd of aesthetes, whether becapped or hirsute, who attended this and similar events Cocteau said that ‘they would applaud novelty at random simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes.’ In short, a readymade cheering section ws present, prepared to do battle against sterility. …

To turn ballet, the most effervescent and fluid of art forms, into grotesque caricature was to insult good taste and the integrity of the audience. That was the attitude of the opposition. It felt offended. It jeered. Applause was the response of the defenders. And so the battle was joined…

Personal insults were certainly exchanged; probably some punches, too; maybe cards, to arrange a semblance of satisfaction afterward….

A countess supposed exclaimed “I am sixty years old and this is the first time anyone has dared to make fun of me…

Of outrage and excitement there was plenty. Indeed, there was such a din that the music may have been almost drowned out at times.

But drowned out completely? Some reports leave the impression that no one, apart from the musicians in the orchestra nd Pierre Monteaux, the conductor, heard the music after the opening bars—not even the dancers….

Where does all this confusion [of reporting] leave us? Is there not sufficient evidence to suggest that the trouble was caused more by warring factions in the audience, by their expectations, their prejudices, their preconceptions about art, than by the work itself? The work, as we shall see, certainly exploited tensions but hardly caused them. The descriptions of the memoirists and even the accounts of the critics are immersed in the scandale rather than the music and ballet, in the even rather than the art. None of the witnesses ever mentions the rest of the program that first evening…

Thus Eksteins says that the work was a catalyst for already existing societal stressors and the work itself (or what it did to individual brains) did not cause the riot at all.

the response of the audience was and is as important to the meaning of this art as the intentions of those who introduced it. Art has transcended reason, didacticism, and a moral purpose: art has become provocation and event.


Thus, Jean Cocteau, who in his staccato prose—which corresponds so well with the percussive diction of Le Sacre—has given us many of our lasting images of that opening night, did not hesitate to admit that he was more concerned with ‘subjective’ than ‘objective’ truth; in other words, with what he felt, what he imagined, not with what actually occurred.”

Where does the fiction end and the fact begin? That boisterous evening rightly stands as a symbol of its era and as a landmark of this century. From the setting in the newly constructed, ultramodern Theatre des Champes-Elysees, in Paris, through the ideas and intentions of the leading protagonists, to the tumultuous response of the audience, that opening night of Le Sacre represents a milestone in the development of ‘modernism,’ modernism as above all a culture of the sensational event, through which art and life both become a matter of energy and are fused as one. Given the crucial significance of the audience in this culture, we must look at the broader context of Le Sacre.

Hmmm, where does that leave us? Does having both interpretations of the event make our own understanding larger or does one threaten to undermine the other?

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks, Lauren – really interesting. I haven’t heard the broadcast, but I have read the book. I think the findings of both are complimentary, rather than detracting from each other. I’m a firm advocate of interdisciplinary approaches generally. It also makes me wonder if there might be a connection between this neurological information and Nijinski’s mental illness.

    I recall reading that Picasso was exploring Cubism around the same time and Einstein was developing his theory of relativity. Picasso is said to have commented later that he had painted relativity long before Einstein’s E=mc2.

    As to the discordant music (and as I recall, the bizarre angles of ankles and feet), these innovations were obviously more than the audience could bear, like fingernails scraping down a blackboard (which might also support the auditory research). Cubism had a similar impact visually, and speaks to the same kind of neurological derailment, I suspect.

    I can see how these two views might undermine each other to a degree, particularly in terms of the empirical-linear academic methods that limit us. However, the two lines of thinking, when read together, allow us to understand other events (and perhaps the Great War) in a new light.

    You’ve inspired me to dig out my copy of The Rites of Spring and read it again. Thank you.

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