The First Time

As everyone in the concert music community has been gearing up for the centennial of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, I noticed that WQXR-FM in New York City recently called several composers, performers, and radio hosts and asked them when they had first heard the piece and what their reactions to it were. I was curious what the answers to these questions were because I had an inkling that most of those answering were going to say “concert hall” or “recording.” Sure enough, out of eighteen respondents, seventeen of them remembered fondly this performance in Carnegie Hall or that high school performance or hearing it on an LP or in a college class or on the radio in the car. Most were in their teens or early 20s when they got their Printemps cherry popped, and all were strongly affected in one way or another (as a side note, I’ve noticed anecdotally that while the initial reactions of musicians to Pierrot Lunaire tend to be mixed, most first impressions of musicians to Le Sacre tend to be emphatic and positive.)

But what about that eighteenth respondent whose first exposure to Stravinsky’s work was neither the concert hall nor a recording? Violinist/composer Owen Pallett was the only one who came clean–I am a bit dubious that he’s the only one from that list who falls into this category–and admitted that the first time he experienced The Rite of Spring was in a movie theater when he saw Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia.

The very topic of Disney’s musical pastiche writ large can be cause for eyes to roll and the animated treatment of Stravinsky’s work in particular is rarely set in a positive light. Although Stravinsky sold the rights to Le Sacre to Disney for the project (as well as those for Firebird, Petroushka, and Renard) and, at the time, seemed pleased with Disney’s adaptation, his comments about the film after it had failed at the box office ranged from “terrible” and “execrable” to “an unresisting imbecility.” For those who know the work well, listening to the Disney adaptation is more than a little disconcerting, as some sections are excised altogether while others (such as the opening) are reprised in accordance with the needs of the visual narrative.

It was not always like this. Just a year after it was premiered, an article in The Musical Times proclaimed:

A work that has had to fight for its place on the ballet stage and concert platform suddenly becomes an unquestionable masterpiece in the picture theatre. The music fits the picture to admiration, and Stravinsky comes out as the ideal auxiliary to a screen cartoonist. (Sept. 1941)

Seven years later, a Musical Times critic continued:

The same music was chosen for a different purpose in Disney’s Fantasia; and the corresponding label–death of the last dinosaur or whatever it was–is at least as valid as that attached by Nijinsky or Massine. In fact the Disney interpretation is more real to the present generation than the ancient dances were even in their own time, since the cartoon has been witnessed by the millions, whereas only a few hundreds saw the dances. (March 1948) 

This last statement is telling because it can only be amplified many times over in the present day; hundreds of millions of people have seen this version of Le Sacre, many of whom were only children at the time, and were affected in some way by it. I myself don’t remember much of my early childhood, but I have always remembered my first time going to a movie in the local theater when I was three or four years old. It was in 1973 or 1974 and my parents took me to see Fantasia; it had been reissued in 1969 and occasionally was shown in art house theaters and on college campuses through the mid-’70s. To a young child at that time, that music combined with those images was extremely potent, and I was excited to see it again when it came back into the theaters in 1977 and 1982. Seeing that film was, I think, a direct precursor for my professional interest in music and film. 

I’m not embarrassed at all to say that the first time I experienced Stravinsky’s work was through Disney’s eyes, but of course it wasn’t the only time I experienced it for the first time. Hearing the work as it was intended on an LP from my dad’s record collection was breathtaking and getting to hear it live for the first time was immensely powerful. During the first semester of my doctoral studies, Elliott Antokoletz’s Stravinsky seminar introduced me to the work afresh as we watched the video of the recreation of Nijinsky’s choreography; seeing the work in its balletic context allowed me to interpret the now-familiar lines in a completely new light. 

Recently Frank J. Oteri explored the idea of familiarity, its importance in building audiences and the necessity of repeated performances of new works over a long period of time. Stravinsky’s Le Sacre, through the filter of Disney’s film, could be seen as a good example of Frank’s ideas put into motion. Le Sacre du Printemps–indeed, all of Stravinsky’s early ballets–were well-known to conductor Leopold Stokowski (who had conducted the ballet in 1930 with the Philadelphia Orchestra) and music critic Deems Taylor (who first suggested the piece to Disney to go along with his story of the earth’s creation). Based on the aforementioned articles in The Musical Times, the reaction to such a new musical work was made easier by its inclusion in the film.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine such a film project happening today with a piece composed less than 30 years ago–say, Short Ride on a Fast Machine or Different Trains (both composed within the same window of time between Le Sacre’s premiere and the opening of Fantasia)–not because of the nature of the music, but because of the lack of trust between music and film presenters and audiences that would allow them to be open to new ideas and repertoire. If anything, this can bring us back to the qualities that make Le Sacre satisfying both immediately and with repeated study; it transcended that mistrust and became a door–a misshapen door, perhaps, but a door nonetheless–for many to venture into contemporary music throughout the past 73 years.

7 thoughts on “The First Time

  1. Steven Ledbetter

    There is a video available on YouTube of Leonard Bernstein rehearsing Le Sacre with the international orchestra of young musicians at the Schleswig-Holstein festival in 1988, and he makes a specific reference to the film at the scene where all the various animals are peacefully grazing and suddenly the tyrannosaurus arrives; Bernstein mentions the effect that scene had on him when he first saw the film, and he wanted the orchestral players to recapture the sense of alarm in that moment.

    I can’t remember exactly when I first saw Fantasia, but it was surely before the first time I checked out an LP of “Le Sacre” from my local public library (late ’50s) to listen to it repeatedly–indeed, seeing the film may well have motivated that visit to the library.

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  2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Maybe those Times interviewees weren’t fibbing. I have still never seen “Fantasia”. My first “Sacre” moment was from a Reader’s Digest record collection when I was 14, the first records in my previously music-free home. Placed as it was among Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Sibelius (etc.), it was all new music to me. I was, of course, hooked … and it had nothing to do with a movie (we were too poor to go to movies).

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    1. Frank J. Oteri

      OMG, Dennis, believe it or not that Reader’s Digest box was my first exposure to Sacre as well, at least the first cognizant one. (I was apparently taken to see Fantasia as a small child, but if the Sacre segment–or any others for that matter–left an impression on me it was purely subliminal.)

      I can still vividly picture the cover of that Reader’s Digest set, a photo of various orchestral instruments that seemed larger than life, although I no longer own a copy of it (having replaced it long ago with complete as possible collections of music by all the composers featured therein). I picked it up for a few dollars at a Salvation Army thrift shop in my earlier years of high school thinking I needed to get a better sense of orchestra music which I really didn’t understand or even like at that point. Though I’ve come to love almost all of the works that were in that RD box, I still remember at the time being initially bored to death by just about all of the recordings in that collection with the exception of the last LP which featured Sacre as well as Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (the only repertoire in the entire collection that was less than 100 years old at the time). Sacre grabbed me instantly and Faune was drop dead gorgeous so I played the LP almost daily, sometimes more than once a day (before I became fanatical about overplaying my vinyl). It was actually what got me hooked on classical music and was my favorite album until I discovered weirder stuff soon thereafter like Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony and a Columbia Masterworks Music of Our Time LP featuring Babbitt’s Ensembles for Synthesizer and David Tudor’s account of John Cage’s Variations II–which was the point of no return. ;)

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      1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

        Wow!

        The Reader’s Digest set was my first classical music other than WQXR, which was pretty much forbidden by my folks as annoying music. I could listen to the record set because, having been purchased, it was a special object.

        I still have the RD set … and just about every other recording I’ve ever owned except for a few rarities given to good friends (watered silk album of Landowska’s Bach, Sgt Pepper w/ poster, and 78s, many of which went to a friend for sale on eBay).

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    2. Rob Deemer

      Great story, Dennis!

      I wasn’t thinking the respondents fibbed as much as some may not have thought that the Disney adaptation “counted” as their first time. Obviously I do, even though it is pretty thoroughly chopped & spliced.

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  3. lawrencedillon

    Nice article, Rob. You say that Sacre transcended mistrust between music and film presenters, but in a roundabout way, it actually created, or at least sealed, the mistrust. Disney had been making “Silly Symphonies” for years before he came out with Fantasia. When that film bombed at the box office, Disney’s reaction was to focus on popular music idioms.

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  4. Mark N. Grant

    My signal early experience with “Rite of Spring” (though not the “first time” I heard it) was my first encounter with it in the concert hall on the evening of Thursday, March 10, 1966 at Carnegie Hall, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jean Martinon. I was in the eighth grade and my father had purchased a “Great Orchestras of the World” season subscription for us to attend. Our seats were in the first or second tier, a little off dead center. It was not my first time at Carnegie Hall, and I’d heard practically daily live orchestra music the summer before attending National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan.

    But the first classical music LP I ever owned (i.e. not belonging to my parents’ collection) was a London monophonic “FFR” recording of Jean Martinon conducting the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in Bizet’s Jeux D’Enfants, Saints-Saens’s Danse Macabre and Rouet d’Omphale, and Ibert’s Divertissement. I must have listened to that record hundreds of times. For me no other performance has ever touched Martinon/Paris Conservatoire’s for the sheer humor of its Divertissement, a piece I subliminally learned a lot about orchestration from (years later I bought the score). So I could barely wait to hear a live (imagine! Live!) Maestro Martinon at Carnegie Hall.

    Forty-seven years later I can no longer remember any of the other 4 or 5 orchestras or programs in the series (maybe Antal Dorati–I attended them all), and I had to search the NY Times database to remind myself what the rest of Martinon’s program consisted of. But the impact of hearing the polychords of the “Dance of the Adolescents” live for the first time, and in Carnegie Hall, under my then favorite conductor, was lifelong. I had already heard the piece on records and was familiar with that passage, and I had seen “Fantasia” a few years earlier, but neither remotely compared to the elemental visceral thwack of a live performance on a not-yet 14-year-old. (The whole work, not just the Dance of the Adolescents.)

    Not long before this concert I had read for English class Willa Cather’s poignant short story “Paul’s Case”– about a sensitive, alienated Pittsburgh adolescent who lives for the glory of the music he hears as he works as an usher in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall. Paul embezzles money, absconds to New York City, listens to an orchestra play at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and, before he can be apprehended, throws himself under a train. In my own life at the time I had my own measure of adolescent angst (in my diary entry for March 10, 1966, I guiltily wrote that after the concert “on the street, there was an old lady ringing a bell, singing a song with a pail. I passed her by.”) But after hearing the Rite of Spring in “the real” Carnegie Hall, I felt the experience of the primal power of that music was greater than any self-destructive impulse could possibly be.

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