Leopold Stokowski, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and The Rite of Spring
Unidentified April 30, 1930, New York City newspaper clipping showing Martha Graham and two dancers from The Rite of Spring program
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s performances this week of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring are just the latest chapter in the Orchestra’s long and rich history with this groundbreaking piece, a tradition that goes back over 90 years and includes the American premieres of its concert and staged versions. With the 100th anniversary this year of both The Rite of Spring and Leopold Stokowski’s first season as music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra, it is a good time to examine the important role Stokowski and the Orchestra played in the early history of the piece in America.
The Rite of Spring was originally a ballet, conceived as a depiction of Russian peasants celebrating the arrival of spring in a pagan ritual that culminates in a young maiden dancing herself to death. Produced by Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, with music by Igor Stravinsky, choreography by the celebrated dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, and sets and costumes by artist Nicholas Roerich, its premiere in Paris on May 29, 1913, was one of the most infamous events in music history. Stravinsky’s dissonant, primitive music and Nijinsky’s provocative choreography sparked a near riot among the audience. Boos and hisses turned into shouting and physical altercations, drowning out the music and nearly stopping the performance. Its initial reception notwithstanding, Stravinsky’s musical score to The Rite of Spring is now widely regarded as a masterpiece, considered by many as the most influential composition of the 20th century.
The Rite of Spring had six performances in Paris and four in London during its initial run in 1913. It was performed a number of times in the ensuing years as a concert piece—without dancing or design elements—before being revived in a full ballet production by Diaghilev in Paris in 1920. Leopold Stokowski saw the full ballet in Europe, probably during the 1920 revival, and was determined to perform it in America. He gave the U.S. premiere of the concert version with The Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music on March 3, 1922. In an introductory talk from the stage prior to the performance he explained the story behind the piece and how it represented a new and challenging form of musical expression. He said that he did not expect everyone to like the music, but that it was important that they hear it. Critical reaction to The Rite of Spring in Philadelphia was decidedly mixed, with some reviewers acknowledging the visceral power, if not the beauty, of Stravinsky’s music and others dismissing it as primitive noise.
Concert program for April 11-14, 1930, Philadelphia performances of The Rite of Spring and Die glückliche Hand
Stokowski and the Orchestra recorded The Rite of Spring for Victor Records in 1929. The recording session took place in the Academy of Music. The following year, on April 11, 1930, they gave the U.S. premiere of the fully-staged ballet version of the piece in a high-profile production that was done in collaboration with the New York-based League of Composers. The program also featured the American premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s “drama with music” Die glückliche Hand (The Hand of Fate). Performances were held in the Metropolitan Opera House at Broad and Poplar Streets, which was better suited to large-scale musical theater productions than the Academy of Music. There were three performances in Philadelphia, followed by two at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House.
Musical Leader article, April 17, 1930
The concerts garnered national attention. The Rite of Spring performances in particular were widely acclaimed. The innovative program further enhanced the reputation of The Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski as one of the world’s greatest musical ensembles and most important presenters of new music.
The Rite of Spring performances of 1930 were also noteworthy for another reason. Dancing the central role of the sacrificial maiden in the ballet was a young rising star by the name of Martha Graham. The role would help to further her career and her emergence as one of the most influential dancers and choreographers of the 20th century.