Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballet should inspire progressive thought
I once attended a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s moving, monumental work, “Le Sacre du Printemps,” or “The Rite of Spring.” The piece is best known as the music during the story of the growth of life on Earth in Disney’s Fantasia. The eccentric and acclaimed 20th-century Russian composer’s risqué, controversial ballet told of an ancient pagan rite. A circle of sage elders watch a young girl, the “chosen one,” dance herself to death as a sacrifice to the god of spring. Its shocking images of human sacrifice, clashing chords, and unconventional tonal structure caused a riot at its 1913 Paris premiere.
Stravinsky’s work, whether intended or not, serves as commentary on our society. The piece depicts an ancient pagan rite in musical and balletic form. It is with history and art fused together into such an innovative creation such as “Rite” that one can fully appreciate the great strides we have made as a human society. In such spirits, should we not adorn Earth, as Stravinsky suggests, for advancement and progress?
Appreciative of the fact that we no longer dance a young girl to death as a massive 200-piece orchestra and their conductor “kill” her simultaneously, we still are not the most progressive, open-minded society. Many of us still hold the mind-set that a woman cannot serve as president of the United States.
“Our country just isn’t ready for a woman president right now” is the sour complaint expressed by an alarming number of individuals. Perhaps we are not at this very moment and perhaps not with the current candidate pool, but if we as enterprising Americans and members of humanity cease to push for continual progress of equality and advancement, principles of American ideology, then who will? When are we going to be ready? Why not soon?
Decades ago, people probably thought, “Our country just isn’t ready for women to vote right now.” Millennia ago, the sage elders in Stravinsky’s ballet probably also thought, “Our civilization just isn’t ready to stop sacrificing young girls right now.” If we continually reject the very notion of having a female lead our nation without regard to her merits and competence, how are we advancing society from Stravinsky’s days? Are we not infringing upon her “right” to be judged as a person of morals and policy, sans blatant sexual discrimination? Are we not still practicing the “rite” of lowering women? If we do not possess at least an air of open-mindedness, how is any progress to be made?
By nature, we are one to maintain the status quo. People are reluctant to have a force disrupt their established comfort of routine. If that force is radical in nature, a considerable proportion of society will resist its progressive means, unwilling to adapt to its shocking new implications, as evidenced by the Parisian audience at the premiere of “Rite” who rioted at its departure from conventionality, ignoring its significance in the advancement of the arts and its rightful place in orchestral literature. They could not have imagined that its jarring, dissonant musical structure, a far cry from the tonal fulfillment of Beethoven or the lush harmonies of Mahler, would not only be accepted but celebrated in years to come, much like people years ago who could not have imagined granting women the right to vote and those today who cannot imagine a woman leading America.
In the present, the once-controversial piece whose audience members left mid-performance is a favorite of major symphony orchestras and a staple in concert halls. It goes to show that one can adapt to change. If a strong, competent female character, the metaphorical “Rite of Spring” in the political arena, decides to run for the presidency of the United States, shall we blatantly walk out on her, too? If we as humankind could not overcome this contemptuous prejudice toward the new and unconventional in the hopes of bettering society, then works such as Rite would not have gained acclaim, but it has defeated the obstacle of the obdurate mind. It takes art and culture to show politics that such change is indeed possible; it takes bold characters, the metaphorical Igor Stravinsky, to dare to stimulate that change.
From the primeval scenes of Nijinsky’s ballet choreography at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to Disney’s depiction of dinosaurs grazing in Fantasia, have we not come a long way since man and animal’s primitive days? The second half of Stravinsky’s work is titled “Le Sacrifice.” We are currently not practicing the literal sacrifice of young girls to fulfill an outdated rite, but in a sense, are we not sacrificing our dignity and moral sense for a chauvinistic maintenance of narrow-mindedness?
“Today, nearly a century after it was composed, Stravinsky’s work still has the power to shock,” writes a music critic. And in a more subtle manner, it still has the power to instigate forward, intellectual, progressive thought.