"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.|
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|
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.