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“Public opinion is an extremely mutable thing,” Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen once declared. In light of historical documents surrounding Igor Stravinsky’s now-acclaimed masterpiece, The Rite of Spring, the truth behind Ibsen’s quote is clearer than ever. Public opinion is not always easy to determine from the limited availability of historical resources, and often evolves over time as well. Although primary sources, especially reviews of music, literature, or other works, can be priceless sources of historical information, scholars must remain aware of possible biases represented among the limited historical materials available.
The role of historical research is to seek and provide comprehensive and accurate understandings of historical persons, places, and events. Primary documents like those republished in Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective and Weiss’ and Taruskin’s Music in the Western World definitely aid a scholars in confirming and questioning traditional understandings of the musical works, especially classics like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. For example, even though “it is easy now to place The Rite of Spring in the context of its Russian “nationalist” heritage,” it can be equally easy to overlook the fact that “the reaction of the older generation of Russian composers was no different from that of conservative musicians everywhere” (Weiss 375). As Weiss and Taruskin acknowledge, quotes like these demonstrate that pieces that had been initially classified according in certain categories can be reclassified and debated. Generally, when primary documents are available, scholars are less likely to fall into naïve and incorrect interpretations of now-celebrated musical works.
Furthermore, primary sources, especially musical reviews, can cast a new light on the dynamics between composers and audiences. As noted earlier, surviving historical reviews of The Rite of Spring seem to be mostly disparaging, with a typical reviews asserting that The Rite of Spring was “like a locomotive which has fallen off the track, making its wheels revolve in air,” or “horrible jargon from the start to finish, sheer discord with no right to a place on the same program with true music” (Slonimsky 198, 199). Granted, Stravinsky did once remark backstage, “That my music could not be immediately accepted, I quite understand” (Weiss 376). However, that he later adamantly denied authorship of an article explaining the meaning behind his music suggests that Stravinsky may have caved into negative reception of his work. Additionally, Stravinsky hints at more positive reception of his earlier works, Petrushka and The Firebird, suggesting that his previous works received more favorable criticism from the press. Such nuanced understanding of the relationship between composers and audiences is only possible with primary documents, and bring greater depth to current knowledge of musical works.
As beneficial as primary sources are in historical studies, however, modern researchers must remain careful of the limited viewpoints expressed in historical works. For instance, although most surviving reviews of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring are sharply derogatory, Carl Van Vechten wrote in the Boston Evening Transcript:
A certain part of the audience, thrilled by what it considered a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art, and swept away with wrath, began very soon after the rise of the curtain to whistle, to make cat-calls, and to offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed. Others of us, who liked the music and felt that the principles of free speech were at stake, bellowed defiance.
Could it be that Van Vechten was representative of a significant minority, or even majority, that genuinely appreciated Stravinsky’s innovative musical styles? This question will never be truly answered, partially due to the insufficiency of surviving primary documents, and partially due to possible biases depicted in these documents. In America today, most people understand that social media and mainstream news are not necessarily representative of public opinion in America. Likewise, opinions gleaned from historically mainstream sources, such as musical reviews published in newspapers, may not be representative of the public opinion of the time. Additionally, just as modern trends in public opinion can be traced over time, historical trends in public opinion may not be readily apparent from narrow selections of primary documents. Researchers have a responsibility, therefore, to remain cognizant of possible biases in historical sources, and to seek out supplementary sources of information if possible. Whenever appropriate, researchers should also use overly deprecatory reviews with a grain of salt, giving composers the benefit of the doubt, especially given that formerly scorned pieces like The Rite of Spring have since gone on to become classical masterpieces.
Primary sources surrounding The Rite of Spring certainly demonstrate the mutability of public opinion. Even as scholars treasure such sources for the invaluable insights they provide, they must bear in mind the potential skews in viewpoints represented, and interpret these works against the greater backdrop of the musical work’s overall historical impact. Historical knowledge may never be complete, but scholars can do their best in evaluating and reevaluating modern understanding of traditional pieces, in order to bestow a more comprehensive and accurate understanding.
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