Barbarism: The Cultural Break into Modernism

Igor Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring

In May of 1913, a well-known progressive Russian artist named Igor Stravinsky traveled to France to create the greatest and most volatile performance of the twentieth century. His ballet, Rite of Spring, became the defining cultural break between the Victorian era and the new Modernist age.

At a time when the arts (ballet, painting, music, etc.) were so valued and respected, Stravinsky redefined the concept of the delicate, Victorian ballet, into something blunt and somewhat grotesque. With no preparation for the kind of performance that would commence, the audience eagerly awaited the ballet as they would any other. However, when the atonal beats rolled out, when the natives began to chant, and the sacrificial virgin was given to the gods, all hell broke loose. Slowly, men and women filed silently out of the theater, grunts of disapproval quietly escaped the mouths of the members, and eventually the entire theater was in an uprising. A war had broken out amongst the audience.

The purest form of beauty and grace had been mauled into an ugly, pagan ritual. Only the most progressive members applauded this transformation. However, the general consensus among the French aristocrats was to reject the brutal change that had been wrought upon the traditional. Stravinsky named this performance Rite of Spring, and it was to become the metaphor (and foreshadowing) for the First World War.

Much of Stravinsky’s inspiration for the barbarism and savagery in Rite of Spring is rooted in the cultural rift between Germany and Western Europe that has existed for thousands of years. With the decline of Victorian influence and heightened tensions among European nations during the early twentieth century, Stravinsky was anticipating and contributed to the shocking cultural movement before the First World War.

Although the Modernist era somewhat attributes its style to its resemblance to the Victorian era, this ballet symbolizes all that is new and different from the latter: the dancers’ attire is simplistic, the music is crashing, a virgin is sacrificed. This type of art parallels the style of modernist poets like T.S. Eliot, for whom traditional structure and limited external perspective had become far less important than conveying indefinite, ambiguous, raw emotion. Stravinsky’s masterpiece seems earth shattering compared to the subtle shift in perspective that authors such as Eliot had created during this era. That being said, Stravinsky was not nearly as concerned as Eliot and other American writers in defining the new Modernist movement; his goal was to create a work of art that would exemplify the changes he was anticipating in a global perspective, not pinpointing details that separated Modernist literature from Victorian.

There is no singular answer for what defines Modernism. Although known as a primarily American cultural movement, the ramifications of shifting from a stifled, suffocating, and “civilized” Victorian era to the raw, malleable, multiplicity of the Modernist movement are products of a global transition. Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring concretely defined the beginning of a new era, before WWI stripped what was left of the traditional civilized world.

Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring. Dir. Yoel Levi. Perf. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Telarc, 27 June 2011. Web.

“After The Revolution.” Dance Magazine 87.2 (2013): 32-36. Humanities International Complete. Web. 17 Sept. 2013.

Eksteins, Modris. Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. Print.

Barbarism: The Cultural Break into Modernism by Laurel Wiebe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at