Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was first performed a hundred years ago this week, a ballet that caused outrage for “throwing off the tried and the true”. The Paris audience thought it was too difficult, with its violent discords and incomprehensible message for the future. It was “a crime against grace”.
But then Stravinsky played a trump card, the flight of fear and finality by a young woman, celebrating the birth of a new life. The sacrifice of that old way of life is necessary for life to continue on Earth: “I am man, not a beast. I am man not a god. I am the Earth.”
A leading critic of the time was Jacques Riviere who saw the Rite as “a biological Spring, looking at life from the inside, with its spasms and fissions”. Catastrophe and tragedy were inevitable parts of the earthly life, events that naturally followed intervals of calm and quietness. That same pattern of change is what biologists now see as being necessary to drive evolution. Catastrophic events in the environment or in an organism’s cells, what Riviere called “spasms and fissions”, move life forward to the next stage of nature.
As if to confirm Stravinsky’s inspired analysis, that greatest of all human catastrophes, the First World War, began the following year.
This cemetery for graves of soldiers from the Somme is one new environment to replace Roerich’s stage backdrop. Similarly, an earlier catastrophic event changed the world 65 millions years ago. That one caused extinction of the dinosaurs and a new era in the evolution of animals and plants.