The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).
Some think the highly vocal reaction to the first performance of The Rite of Spring was unprecedented. It was not! For example, in 1907, at the premiere performance of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony the leading critic Ludwig Karpath shouted “Stop it! Enough!” and the Vienna audience became violent. Intense outrage also greeted performances of other of Schoenberg’s new works, in 1908 and 1910. Then in early March 1913, in Rome, at a performance of Francesco Pratella’s Musica Futurista, the audience booed and threw garbage at the orchestra, and some fighting occurred. Later that March, in Vienna, police had to be called to a concert when the audience became violent upon hearing Berg’s new Five Orchestral Songs. An audience member, composer Oscar Straus, stated “the sound of the scuffle was the most harmonious sound of the evening!” These and other experiments in music were met with differing responses: some people, anchored in the past, resisted change; others, open to unknowns, welcomed it. So, clearly, there were precedents for the reactions to The Rite of Spring.
Negative reactions to change were not confined to the musical community, of course, for there were widespread revolts—some planned, others spontaneous, some peaceful, others violent—as unprecedented social and economic changes occurred across Europe, in, for example, Britain and France in 1911, Ireland and Germany in 1912, and Russia and Belgium in 1913. In other words, friction between the “old order” and the “new” was occurring in all aspects of life. It is therefore not surprising to see that friction also occurred in the musical realm.
As the day—29 May, 1913—of the first performance of The Rite of Spring approached there were those who were filled with excitement and others who feared that it would be too much. It must be remembered that this was a ballet, not just the now famous stand-alone music. A major influence on how the evening developed was the trepidation felt by many fashionable Parisians who had grown weary—and wary—of Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s ballets. Why? When Diaghilev first presented concerts in Russia he was funded by the Czar but by 1909 their relationship had soured. By then Diaghilev’s company’s Paris operation was doing exceptionally well and, indeed, the nightly attendance at Ballet Russes performances had become, in Alex Ross’s words, “the obligatory fad among the French aristocracy and upper bourgeoisie.”
As with many fads, many of these people grew tired of the innovative ballets, wanting instead a return to “safe” expected traditional forms. Thus it was that some in the audience on that hot and muggy May evening (after a day time temperature of nearly 30C) were fully prepared to be upset if the dancing was provocative. Nijinsky’s choreography eschewed all traditional forms and instead, as ballet historian Lynn Garafola recounted, “The dancers trembled, shook, shivered, stamped, jumped crudely and ferociously, circled the stage in wild khovorods [i,e., Russia’s oldest dance].” Was it any surprise that some objected? So, as it happened, there was a clash between the competing groups in the audience, with loud shouting in the auditorium. The trouble led police officers on duty at the theatre (as per standard practice) to handle the noise-makers who flowed out onto the streets, forty of whom were ejected from the theatre. One observer maintained that Diaghilev had inserted troublemakers into the audience, to gain publicity for the ballet in the next day’s newspapers!
We know that conservative wealthy patrons (seated in the boxes) jeered; younger, more liberal patrons (in the balconies and the standing areas) cheered. Though at times the music could not be heard, the orchestra (led by the conductor Pierre Monteux) and the dancers pushed through and so the work thus had its first performance. Contemporary accounts conflict: some say dissenters stayed until the end and jeered when Stravinsky and Nijinsky appeared on stage whereas others say the objectors had already left the theatre so the remaining audience demanded and got four or five curtain calls. There indeed was shouting and some violence, but for the actions that night to be called a “riot” is something that gained traction only in later years!
The second performance had a lesser degree of discord. The third—as with subsequent performances in London and elsewhere—had none, and so it has been to this day. Stravinsky’s music, freed of the ballet, quickly gained acceptance as orchestral audiences grew to enjoy the excitement in Stravinsky’s music.
Just as Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and others, including Janáček, Grainger, and Bartok, were exploring new approaches to music making, so too was Stravinsky. Change was in the air! So what was Stravinsky’s contribution? Putting it succinctly, as evidenced during the period 1910-1913 by his three remarkable early ballet scores, Stravinsky liberated existing understandings of rhythms, melody, and harmony, and thereby changed the course of musical development. Few composers since that period have been able to ignore what Stravinsky made possible.
Stravinsky had a long career: his final composition, Fanfare for a New Theatre, was written in 1968, He was a complex man given to tangential explorations of the mind. As a composer, he created music in a variety of forms, from solo vocals (more than forty songs) to choral works (including Symphony of Psalms), chamber groups (including the string quartet Concertino), solo instruments (including many works for piano), dramas (including Histoire du soldat—for spoken voice, instruments, and dance, and the opera The Rake’s Progress). concertos (including the Violin Concerto), and orchestras (including The Fairy’s Kiss, Dumbarton Oaks, Symphony in Three Movements, Symphony in C, Symphony of Wind Instruments, and Circus Polka—the latter “for a young elephant”). Despite a remarkable outflow of compositions, audiences and performers constantly gravitate to his three early masterpieces—The Firebird (1910; performed by the GSO in 2015), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913).
Stravinsky was born in Oranienbaum (now Lomonosov), Russia. His father had a long career as a distinguished bass-baritone at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. The young Igor enjoyed hearing his father practise at home, and he was encouraged to attend ballet and opera performances at the famous theatre. One of his treasured memories was seeing Tchaikovsky in St. Petersburg a few weeks before that composer died in 1893. At the age of nine, Stravinsky began piano lessons and then began studies in harmony and counterpoint. When in his teens he began to improvise and so became interested in composition.
One of his friends was a son of the famous composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov who invited his mate to his parents’ home. The young Igor showed the great man some of his piano composition but got no positive reaction. Instead, Rimsky-Korsakov advised Igor to continue private lessons in harmony and counterpoint and to not go to the conservatory! Soon after this, Igor’s father died (in 1902) and for the next six years Rimsky-Korsakov became a close central figure in Igor’s life. During three of these years he gave Igor lessons in instrumentation. Weekly musical gatherings at the Rimsky-Korsakov home opened Igor’s mind to musical explorations. He continued to show his compositions to the great man, including his Symphony in Eb (dedicated to Rimsky-Korsakov) and Scherzo fantastique for Orchestra. Upon Rimsky-Korsakov’s death Igor composed a funeral dirge in his master’s memory. Some of Stravinsky’s early works were influenced by this great man but he found Mussorgsky’s music to be of greater interest for it called upon old Russian musical forms.
A “what if” event led to Stravinsky “discovery.” One wonders what course Stravinsky’s composing career would have taken if Russian composer Anatoly Liadov had fulfilled a commission offered by Diaghilev to compose music for his ballet company. When Liadov withdrew Diaghilev, impressed by the February 1909 performance in St. Petersburg of the young Stravinsky’s Fireworks (written as a wedding present for Rimsky-Korsakov’s daughter) and Scherzo fantastique, asked Stravinsky to orchestrate two works for the 1909 season of the Ballet Russes in Paris. Their success led to an invitation to compose The Firebird, a Russian fairy tale, which he completed in St. Petersburg and premiered in Paris in June 1910.
The huge success of The Firebird changed the course of Stravinsky’s life. He was hailed in Paris, the exciting centre of the world of art, but after enjoying life there for several years he made his home in Switzerland (1914-1920), thereby exiling himself from Russia during the Russian Revolution. In 1934 he became a French citizen and an American citizen in 1945. Stravinsky’s second ballet for Diaghilev, Petrushka, is about three puppets that are brought to life, one being Petrushka. The work’s devilishly difficult cascades of arpeggios make it a diabolical work for the musicians to play! Once again, success, and a renewed interest by Diaghilev in Stravinsky’s next idea.
While composing The Firebird, Stravinsky had a dream about a pagan ritual sacrifice. Diaghilev liked the story and so encouraged Stravinsky to write the score. The Russian title of this new ballet means The Sacred Spring though it was premiered by its French title, Le Sacre du printemps. In English it is titled The Rite of Spring. Diaghilev hired the star ballet choreographer Vaclav Nijinsky to interpret in movement the meaning of Stravinsky’s score. This was not an easy task for the composition was unlike anything else so Nijinsky had to be daringly different in order to best reflect the great demands of the musical score. Teaching the dancers the provocative choreography took more than 90 rehearsals, and three with the orchestra. (The 99 musicians in the orchestra for the premiere had 17 rehearsals.) With rumours swirling, the trepidation Parisian socialites felt as the performance approached was fed too by Diaghilev’s suggestion in the Paris newspapers that the ballet would cause “impassioned debate.” But enough about the dance, we are to hear the music, so let me say a word or two about it.
Stripped of the provocative dancing one can focus on the innovative score. Stravinsky drew upon old Russian musical forms and likely also Russian folk dances which incorporated irregular beats but what emerged was unique to him. Of Stravinsky’s work musicologist Boris Yarustovsky stated, “the heroes of ‘the springtime sacrifice’ are the people of pagan Russia strongly tied to the earth, to the elemental forces of nature and its yearly cycle.” Stravinsky wrote: “In the Rite of Spring, I wished to express the bright reawakening of nature, which is restored to new life—a full, spontaneous reawakening, a reawakening of universal [maternal] conception.” With the sub-title “Scenes of Pagan Russia,” The Rite of Spring is in two major parts, “The Kiss of the Earth” and “The Exalted Sacrifice,” with two introductions and twelve episodes (from less than a minute to five minutes in length).
The Kiss of the Earth. The “Introduction” (which in the ballet serves as an overture prior to the curtain rising) opens with amazing high sounds from the bassoon and then as other wind instruments including the English Horn join in the music proceeds to gain density. The bassoon returns. A quiet passage is cut short by the strings beating out a rhythm in “Harbingers of Spring: Dances of the Young Girls” that incorporates the first instance of captivating syncopations. Woodwinds and brass join them as the celebration of spring begins. This is a dance but not in the manner of graceful courtly dances; instead this is a primitive and pagan celebration. Angry material follows, representing a brutal “Ritual of Abduction.” Next is the slow dance, “Spring Rounds.” Then, signalled by the timpani, trombones and tuba, yet further agitation in “Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes, with powerful refrains in the brass that are suddenly cut off as the music moves into the “Procession of the Oldest and Wisest One (the Sage)” which flows in a serene manner. A very short (just four bars long) “The Kiss of the Earth (the Oldest and Wisest One)” leads into the passionate “Dancing Out of the Earth” (or the Dance Overcoming the Earth). Insistent underlying beats undergird all else. A concluding eruption of sound brings the dance of the earth to an abrupt conclusion.
The Introduction to the second part, The Exalted Sacrifice, opens in an eerie manner. It is followed by the delightful “Mystic Circle of the Young Girls.” This episode ends when insistent timpani beats, heartily mirrored in the strings, lead into “The Naming and Honouring of the Chosen One.” Listen (as elsewhere in the work) or watch the conductor’s baton for the ever-changing time signatures. “Evocation of the Ancestors” opens in fanfare fashion, in patterns that are repeated, Then, evoking images of Russian pagan idols, we hear the “Ritual Action of the Ancestors,” which ends quietly, and leads directly into the concluding spectacular “Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One).” This festive dance becomes intense, with ever-changing metres and wild syncopations as the “chosen one” is inexorably driven to dance ever more frantically until, at the last, she dies just as the music comes to its savage ending. By this point you, the listener, with the musicians, may be both exhilarated and, possibly, exhausted! For sure, the musicians will have deserved your applause.
Permit me to end with a telling comment by Stravinsky. Responding to the many claims by others that he was a revolutionary because of The Rite of Spring, he declared, “I was made a revolutionary in spite of myself.
deserved your applause.