Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Stravinsky's Rite of Spring: 100 years old and still casting a spell with its primitive, instinctual power

"Don't you get it?" screamed Bernstein. "This piece is all about SEX!"
Nicholas Roerich's costumes are seen in the original production and in the Victoria & Albert collection, below.
The date was May 29, 1913; the setting, the newly constructed art deco Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The evening began placidly enough, with a performance of Les Sylphides, a ballet set to lilting piano music by Chopin. But then came a train wreck of a performance in which dancers in outlandish costumes attempted to execute Nijinsky's challenging choreography while keeping up with Stravinsky's unorthodox beats and struggling to hear the music over the ever-increasing din of catcalls and boos from the audience.
Despite the dissonances and irregular, jarring accents—which paved the way for modern music—one quickly adapts to the Rite's magic and it becomes exhilarating and addictive. "It's still startling to us today when we hear it," says NPR's Miles Hoffman, "but it is not a confusing piece. It's compelling. We're hearing irregular rhythms, we're hearing instruments asked to go to the extremes of their capability, but we're also hearing patterns that we recognize, with pacing, contrast, fascinating harmonies, continuity — all the basic principles of what makes a piece of music work are all there. And that shows us the secret of Stravinsky's genius."
Many great conductors have tried their hand at the Rite, including Antal Doráti, Riccardo Chailly, Pierre Boulez, Valery Gergiev, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Pierre Monteux—all of whom are featured on our 100th anniversary collection. Another fan is Baltimore Symphony director Marin Alsop, who talked to NPR about her special take on the work:
For every conductor, there is that seminal composition, that piece of music that makes one say, "I must conduct that piece someday.".... There's something almost intangible about The Rite of Spring that drew me under its spell.
First and foremost, it's the rhythm. As Stravinsky said, "There is no life without pulse," but there's pulse and then there's The Rite of Spring's pulse! This was the first time I'd ever heard more than 100 musicians bump and grind and totally groove together. The swing, the propulsion, the sheer abandon was overwhelming; any semblance of pretense or stuffiness fell away for me and I was hooked. The orchestra became my passion.
The Rite of Spring was the first orchestral score that I asked my father to buy for me, and I could spend hours poring over the mixed meters and ingenious bar-line placements. How could Stravinsky have thought this up? I also fell under the spell of Stravinsky's alien sound world. The beginning of The Rite of Spring was the most foreign, exotic and evocative music I'd ever heard. The plaintive, almost straining bassoon solo in the opening still sounds like some new breed of snake charmer to me, oozing with clarinets while cajoling various creatures from their hiding places.

Seeing the natural world up close opened another doorway into The Rite of Spring for me when I left the big city for the countryside as a young adult. I was overwhelmed and sometimes terrified by the wildlife I came into contact with.... Somehow, these new creatures conjured up the alien sounds of Stravinsky's music, becoming part of my personal picture of the opening section, called "The Adoration of the Earth."
Costume sketches for the Rite
In the early mornings, I would wake up to a chubby groundhog shaking the dew off his fur. This, for me, has become the English horn solo in the opening section, strutting obliviously around the yard.
I never knew how noisy bird life could be in the countryside, and the E-flat clarinet has come to remind me of all those insistent, unrelenting morning twitters. The alto flute, however, is a more graceful, slower-moving bird from the nearby lake that swings by now and then.
The bass clarinets conjure up bubbling, vomiting goop, and I've found that asking the musicians to "vomit" up their parts elicits the perfect interpretive results.
When I hear the two contrabassoons, I imagine a pair of enormous beetles munching their way through giant leaves. And the piccolo trumpet soars like a prehistoric flying creature, as my present experiences meld into my imagined ones, all in just the first three minutes of the music.
The cacophony of country living heats up to a frenzy before the meditative snake charmer reappears to again place the audience under his spell. But this time, the spell is broken by the throbbing life pulse in the "Dance of the Adolescents," signaling the start of spring.
One of my favorite Rite of Spring memories is of Leonard Bernstein rehearsing the piece with an orchestra of young musicians.... He suddenly screamed out during the rehearsal, "Don't you get it? This piece is all about SEX!" Everyone was embarrassed, but also delighted.
In his inimitable way, Bernstein captured the piece's essence. The Rite of Spring is about basic, primitive, instinctual emotions, desires and reactions; for each of us, that triggers a different set of pictures and associations. It is a story of life as never told or heard before. Maybe that's the real spell cast by The Rite of Spring.
The gorgeous Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was designed by architects Henry Van de Velde and Auguste Perret, painter and sculptor Antoine Bourdelle (the exterior bas-relief), painter Maurice Denis (the auditorium dome), and glassmaker René Lalique. Coco Chanel was in the audience the night Le Sacre du Printemps debuted there; seven years later, she and Stravinsky (who was married at the time) embarked on a love affair.
This is the full performance of the Joffrey Ballet's historic recreation of the Rite.


  1. The apparent violence of the music didn't frighten Walt Disney, who used it in Fantasia.
    "Music," Stravinsky is quoted as saying, "is by its very nature powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music."
    Well, that knocks over the 3-legged stool of Romanticism--(composer, performer, listener collaborating on every piece).
    Stravinsky remained loyal to tonality and never made the break Schoenberg did.

  2. I guess I’ve never understood the charm of the Rite. Influential, groundbreaking, impossible to ignore; hard to love all the same. At 8 minutes or so, frankly I’m bored by this exercise in faux orientalism. Stravinsky probably got tired of it too, because after completing a few wildly successful ballets, he settled into a half-century of writing unabashedly “old school” compositions, from the Symphony of Psalms to his neo-baroque Violin Concerto. Mind you, I preferred those. Regardless, Stravinsky never seemed to express himself in his music, so Giaconda’s quotation is quite pertinent. On the other hand there are so many 20th century classical composers who went out on the limb to give you something of themselves: Shostakovich, Berg, Ives, Sibelius, and the sadly underrated Janacek.

  3. May I add (since no one else is about) that I do not subscribe to Stravinsky's idea of expressionless music. Every note, followed by a second one, creates an expectation that the third either fulfills or denies. And it is the cumulative effect of these musical molecules of affect that decides whether I run to listen to the piece again, or simply run.
    Glad to hear from you, Mr. Breton. In these days when music is as ubiquitous as it is meaningless, it's nice to hear from someone who appreciates and understands.

  4. "musical molecules of affect"?

    The wee fairies shook so hard with laughter they fell into their soup.

  5. I had no idea the rite of spring plot in the ballet ended with someone dancing themselves to death as some sort of sacrificial event to bring on spring. WOW!!!!

  6. The last few months, I've been working on an animated graphical score of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. As of yesterday, it is complete:

    Part 1:
    Part 2:


    Stephen Malinowski
    Music Animation Machine