I was just re-reading a Taruskin essay on the Rite ("Resisting The Rite" from Russian Music at Home and Abroad) and he coyly teases us by saying that there are only two pieces of music that stand out as being of transcending importance in both the academic canon and the popular repertory. The Rite is one and the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven is the other. He actually struggles trying to sort out just why this is the case, talking about how both pieces were "resisted" by the audience initially, but later accepted, how both pieces are "events" rather than just pieces of music, how both hook into non-musical narratives such as gesamtkunstwerk (complete artwork because it is a ballet with a set design as well as a piece of music) in the case of the Rite and the transcendent humanistic values of the Enlightenment, embodied in the instrumental and vocal forces of the Ninth. But I don't think he quite succeeds in his mission of "contextualizing" the Rite because he, like academic musicology generally, abhors any mention of "aesthetic quality" as being somehow out of bounds. Instead of saying that the Rite stands head and shoulders above other pieces because of its aesthetic quality, he reverts to claiming that it, rather than say the Firebird or Pierrot Lunaire, was the object of numerous conferences (on the 100th anniversary of its premiere in 1913), hosts of books, zillions of concert performances and so on because:
But mere "dual status" seems a feeble reed to hang all this adulation on, does it not? I would want to add things like the nature of the genre itself: the only pieces that can attain a kind of universal status (among classical music lovers at least) are ones that have what we might call a high social profile, ones that are in the symphonic or ballet or operatic genre. These pieces are always performed before large groups of people and hence have the possibility of a wider impact than pieces with smaller audiences. Yes, with modern technology a single piano can be heard by any number of people, but the intimacy of the solo piano does not convey. Similarly, a Beethoven string quartet, obviously as profound as music gets, is not going to become a widespread social artifact the way a symphony can. So the two elements that seem crucial to me are the universality of the genre combined with the aesthetic quality of the individual piece. Another possible element might be the completeness of the range of aesthetic quality. I can exemplify this by mentioning another near-iconic piece of 20th century music that Taruskin might have considered (but didn't), the Symphony No. 3 of Henryk Górecki, which also possesses that dual status of being in the academic canon (for some academics, at least) and in the popular repertory. Taruskin might disqualify it by saying that it has attracted little academic attention, but I would instead point to the fact that it covers a far narrower range of musical textures, moods, devices and expression than either the Rite or the Ninth.From all these stories and testimonies we can conclude that neither a piece belonging only to the canon, like Pierrot, nor a piece belonging only to the repertory, like Firebird, could have given rise to such an orgy of commemoration. You have to have the dual status that seems to be The Rite’s alone, among twentieth-century masterpieces.[Taruskin, Richard. Russian Music at Home and Abroad: New Essays (Kindle Locations 12061-12064). University of California Press. Kindle Edition.]
Let me close with one of the most entertaining quotes about the Rite, this is from Claude Debussy who described it as "primitive music with all modern conveniences."
And for our envoi, of course, the Rite of Spring in an attempted reproduction of the original choreography, costumes and sets with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Theatre Ballet Company and Orchestra: