The painter Nicholas Roerich shared his idea with Stravinsky in 1910, his fleeting vision of a pagan ritual in which a young girl dances herself to death. Stravinsky's earliest conception of The Rite of Spring was in the spring of 1910. Stravinsky writes, "... there arose a picture of a sacred pagan ritual: the wise elders are seated in a circle and are observing the dance before death of the girl whom they are offering as a sacrifice to the god of Spring in order to gain his benevolence. This became the subject of The Rite of Spring."
After undergoing revisions almost up until the very day of its first performance, it was premiered on Thursday, May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris and was conducted by Pierre Monteux under the Ballets Russes.
The premiere involved one of the most famous classical music riots in history. The intensely rhythmic score and primitive scenario shocked audiences more accustomed to the demure conventions of classical ballet. Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography was a radical departure from classical ballet. Stravinsky would later write in his autobiography of the process of working with Nijinsky on the choreography, stating that "the poor boy knew nothing of music" and that Nijinsky "had been saddled with a task beyond his capacity." While Stravinsky praised Nijinsky's amazing dance talent, he was frustrated working with him on choreography.
This frustration was reciprocated by Nijinsky with regard to Stravinsky's patronizing attitude: "...so much time is wasted as Stravinsky thinks he is the only one who knows anything about music. In working with me he explains the value of the black notes, the white notes, of quavers and semiquavers, as though I had never studied music at all... I wish he would talk more about his music for Sacre, and not give a lecture on the beginning theory of music."
The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start, the audience began to boo loudly. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance. Fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the première allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet's opening bars (though Stravinsky later said "I do not know who invented the story that he was present at, but soon walked out of, the premiere.") .
Stravinsky ran backstage, where Diaghilev was turning the lights on and off in an attempt to try to calm the audience. Nijinsky stood on a chair, leaned out (far enough that Stravinsky had to grab his coat-tail), and shouted counts to the dancers, who were unable to hear the orchestra (this was challenging because Russian numbers above ten are polysyllabic, such as eighteen: vosemnadsat vs. seventeen: semnadstat).
Although Nijinsky and Stravinsky were despondent, Diaghilev (a Russian art critic as well as the ballet's impresario) commented that the scandal was "just what I wanted".Some scholars have questioned the traditional account, particularly concerning the extent to which the riot was caused by the music, rather than by the choreography and/or the social and political circumstances. Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin has written an article about the premiere, entitled "A Myth of the Twentieth Century," in which he attempts to demonstrate that the traditional story of the music provoking unrest was largely concocted by Stravinsky himself in the 1920s after he had published the score. At that later date, Stravinsky was constructing an image of himself as an innovative composer to promote his music, and he revised his accounts of the composition and performances of The Rite of Spring to place a greater emphasis on a break with musical traditions and to encourage a focus on the music itself in concert performances.