Music often causes a physical reaction. When you listen to music you might tap your toes, sway back and forth, experience goose bumps, or even cry. Your heart may beat faster, your breathing may slow down, you might pick up your step, or you may feel calm. At a high school or college football game, the music of the marching band can energize fans and players alike, helping fans cheer louder and the teams play harder. But music, even when performed masterfully, can also cause you to awkwardly shift in your seat, frown, or … throw vegetables.
I recently attended a sold-out symphony concert in which our daughter played the flute. One of the pieces she performed was Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. As the dissonant, cacophonous, revolutionary work unfolded, I felt a surge of emotions. Sometimes I found myself wondering, “What is this?” A couple of times I actually shook my head. It was fascinating and stirring, pounding and thrilling. I thought, “This is really weird and really awesome at the same time.” I tried to find some order in the music by watching the conductor, but the ever-changing time signatures left me feeling out-of-control.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. I had read the program notes explaining how the 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring, performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris with the Ballet Russes, caused a sensation. Historians say that the disturbance in the audience started during the introduction and grew louder as the ballet began. Outrageous costumes and scandalous choreography, pounding percussion, jarring rhythms, and unconventional use of instruments were unlike anything the 1913 audience had seen or heard before. Nervous laughter developed into boos and hissing, then shouting, and the ensuing ruckus was a near-riot. Patrons pelted the orchestra with vegetables and anything else they could get their hands on. When I read about that I thought to myself: Did people usually take vegetables with them to the theater? Although the dress rehearsal had received harsh criticism, there was not large-scale rebellion during the rehearsal, so chaos during the performance may not have been entirely spontaneous but a planned confrontation by traditionalists who liked their music pretty.
And so as I took my seat in the theater that evening a few weeks ago, I expected something new. I just wasn’t sure how I would respond. I knew I would be amazed and proud that my daughter was part of something as big as this. After the last note soared through the concert hall and hung for a moment in our ears and hearts, the audience seemed to pause to take a deep collective sigh, frozen almost in a state of shock, before we rose to our feet with applause.
The symphony had done its job: they caused us to feel something, even if we couldn’t describe what that something was. Was it just sensory overload? Was it the exhilarating, adrenaline-rush, out-of-control feeling you have when you’re on a roller coaster? Was it an earthy, primitive struggle with chaos and change? It was evident that change can be uncomfortable, and the music forced us to confront that change, which in the end was cathartic and beautiful like the restorative power of spring!
Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.Leonard Bernstein