Florian Illies


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Exactly two weeks later, the next general rehearsal in that very special May in Paris – Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. This time Harry Graf Kessler doesn’t even go to the rehearsal, heading instead straight to the post-rehearsal party at the Larue restaurant – with Nijinsky, with Maurice Ravel, with André Gide, with Diaghilev, with Stravinsky, ‘where the general view was that the première tomorrow evening would cause a scandal’. And so it did. The première of The Rite of Spring was an event that electrified Paris and sent shock waves as far as New York and Moscow. What happens on the evening of 29 May between 8 and 10 p.m. is one of those rare moments when eye-witnesses sense they’re part of a historical event. Even Harry Graf Kessler is ecstatic: ‘A new form of choreography and music. An entirely new vision, something never seen before, something gripping and convincing, has suddenly come into existence. Savagery in un-art and also in art: old form is ravaged, new form suddenly arising out of chaos.’ What Kessler confides in his diary at three o’clock in the morning is one of the most concise and workable formulations for the thrust of modernity that grips the world in 1913.

The audience on 29 May in Paris is the noblest and most cultivated in Old Europe: sitting in one of the boxes is Gabriele d’Annunzio, who has fled to Paris to get away from his disciples in Italy. In is Claude Debussy. Coco Chanel is in the auditorium, and so is Marcel Duchamp. For the rest of his life, he will say later, he would never forget the ‘shouting and screeching’ of that evening. Stravinsky’s music brought the primal violence of archaic powers back on the stage – the primordial nature of people from Africa and Oceania, who had served as a model for the art of Expressionism, were now at the centre of civilisation, brought to pulsating life in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

From the first note of the extremely high solo bassoon, roars of laughter can be heard – is that music, or a spring storm, or the noise of hell the outraged audience wants to know. Drumming everywhere, up on stage the dancers are in ecstatic motion – there’s laughter, then, when the Parisians realise it is meant seriously, shouting. The devotees of the Modern, on the other hand, applaud from the cheap seats, the music rages on and the dancers get tangled up; they can no longer hear the music for all the noise. From somewhere or other Maurice Ravel is shouting ‘Genius!’ into the auditorium. Nijinsky, who wrote the choreography for the ballet, hammers out the rhythm with his fingers – against the furious whistling of the audience.

The dancers seem to be intoxicated, and the theatre manager turns off the lights in the middle of the performance to avoid an escalation of the chaos, but the dancers at the front keep going, and when the lights come back on the people in the auditorium have the unsettling feeling that they’re the stage and the dancers are the audience. It is only thanks to the stoical calm of the conductor, Pierre Monteux, who keeps going just as the dancers do, that they manage to carry the performance to the final bar. Le Figaro writes the next morning:
The stage represented humanity. On the right, strong young people are picking flowers, while a 300-year-old woman dances around like mad. On the left-hand edge of the stage an old man studies the stars, where here and there sacrifices are being made to the god of light. The audience couldn’t swallow it. They roundly hissed the piece. A few days previously they might have applauded. The Russians, who aren’t entirely familiar with the manners and customs of the countries they visit, didn’t know that the French start protesting at the drop of a hat once stupidity has reached its nadir.

Stravinsky is horrified by these words. He is deeply disturbed by the events of the evening. And yet he guesses he has written a work that will define an era. And he may have been reinforced in this view by Coco Chanel, whose little millinery salon in Paris has been attracting a great deal of attention, and who sees the great Russian composer for the first time this evening. And then becomes his lover.

Taken from: Illies, Florian (2012): 1913 – The Year Before the Storm.
London: Profile Books Limited. 121ff.

Florian Illies

1913 heralds a new age of unlimited possibility. Kafka falls in love; Louis Armstrong learns to play the trumpet; a young seamstress called Coco Chanel opens her first boutique; Charlie Chaplin signs his first movie contract; and new drugs like cocaine usher in an age of decadence.

Yet everywhere there is the premonition of ruin - the number 13 is omnipresent, and in London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Trieste, artists take the omen and act as if there were no tomorrow, their brief coincidences of existence telling of a darker future. In a Munich hotel lobby, Rilke and Freud discuss beauty and transience; Proust sets out in search of lost time; and while Stravinsky celebrates the Rite of Spring with industrial cacophony, in Munich an Austrian postcard painter by the name of Adolf Hitler sells his conventional cityscapes.

1913 - The Year before the Storm (Clerkenwell Press, 2013)