Le Sacre and Pierre Monteux: An Unknown Debt

Pierre Monteux
Pierre Monteux; drawing by David Levine

The late Pierre Monteux—born one hundred years ago April 4—has been justly acclaimed for his part in the premiere of Le Sacre du printemps, directing an orchestra that frequently could not hear itself over the audience’s noisy protests. But his contributions to the score two months earlier may be as important as the conducting feat. Without intending to diminish Monteux’s glory on that occasion, one should acknowledge that his mastery of the score was less than unique, since a colleague, with the Restoration Comedy name of Rhené Baton [sic, in Monteux’s letters], was also prepared for the task and in fact led three of the seven performances that the Ballets Russes gave in its 1913 season.

The Company was in Berlin when Stravinsky completed the music, in November, 1912, and Monteux, who had thought the composer “raving mad”1 when he played parts of it at the piano in Monte Carlo seven months before, telegraphed asking his help with the piano rehearsals. Dame Marie Rambert has described Stravinsky’s arrival at one of the Berlin sessions:

Hearing the way his music was being played, he blazed up, pushed aside the fat German pianist, nick-named “Kolossal” by Diaghilev, and proceeded to play twice as fast as we had been doing and twice as fast as we could possibly dance. He stamped his feet on the floor and banged his fist on the piano and sang and shouted….2

During the next three months Stravinsky continued to coach the dancers, pianists, conductors, and Nijinsky, who was composing the choreography, meeting with them in all of the larger cities on their tour. But in Budapest, the first stop after Berlin, Stravinsky happened to attend a poor performance of The Firebird, blamed its shortcomings on Monteux, and raised a tremendous row. Fortunately Diaghilev was able not only to appease the conductor’s affronted feelings but also to persuade him to do the same for Stravinsky’s, in a letter that was both face-saving and reconciliatory:

…I was so stunned by the reproaches that you addressed to me a while ago that I tendered my resignation to M. Diaghilev. You hold me responsible for playing The Firebird under bad conditions, but what could I do with a contract that obliges me to conduct every performance?… My admiration and devotion, however, are unshaken…. (Letter from Monteux in the Hotel Europa to Stravinsky in the Hotel Hungaria, January 4, 1913.)

Another letter, from Nijinsky to Stravinsky, gives a notion of the difficulties that the former encountered in preparing the new ballet while at the same time fulfilling a heavy schedule of performances. The letter further reveals that Nijinsky anticipated the conflict at the premiere which so surprised and angered the composer:

Dear Igor, Since our departure from Vienna I have been able to make five rehearsals. This is not very many, of course, considering how much…

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