Stravinsky (1882-1971) - The Rite of Spring
was written for a performance – and a pretty impressive one, at that –
given in 1997 by an amateur orchestra! For use in a “pro” programme, it
would need a bit of a tweak.
when it first assaulted the senses, The Rite of Spring was at first
considered virtually impossible to perform, then a major challenge even
to virtuoso orchestras. Nowadays it has become a somewhat traditional test
of an orchestra's mettle, well within the capabilities of any professional
orchestra. But it remains an awesomely difficult score, so how should we
view the temerity of an amateur orchestra, even a relatively accomplished
one, in even attempting it? The answer is surprisingly obvious: we have
finally reached the point where a new class of performers is just beginning
to face the challenge of the Rite. They find themselves in much
the same circumstance as the orchestras in those early years. Put simply,
what you are about to hear is an authentic performance, inasmuch
as the players will be wrestling with a work almost beyond their experience.
I say “almost”, because play it they most certainly can, even if sitting
a bit closer to the edges of their seats than usual! If this does not add
an extra frisson of excitement, I don't know what will.
wrote the Rite 84 years ago. Looking back a further 84 years, to 1829,
we find Mendelssohn polishing his First String Quartet, Chopin writing
his First Piano Concerto, and Berlioz contemplating the work that
previously shook the musical world to its very foundations, his Symphonie
Fantastique (completed May 1830). This 84-year “cycle” is entirely
coincidental (there was no similar seismic activity in 1745), unless, that
is, someone right now and unbeknowns to us is lighting another blue touch
paper! You might care to speculate, over a drink afterwards, whether we
on the whole now “see” the Rite as the people in 1913 “saw” the
to Stravinsky, he was finishing The Firebird when he had his “vision
of a solemn pagan rite” in which a young girl was sacrificed to propitiate
the god of Spring. Diaghilev, seeing the potential for a ballet, urged
him to work on it. In the event, Petrushka came first. Stravinsky
worked on the plan with Nicolas Roerich, designer, painter and (usefully)
authority on ancient Slavs. The ballet was very much a product of the artistic
revolution of the time, an unprecedentedly well-integrated combination
of music (Stravinsky), costumes and scenery (Roerich), and choreography
(Nijinsky). At every turn and at all levels, there was a defined relationship
between all the production components: music, costume, scene, colour,
form and movement were all interlocked.
all so radical that a scandal was assured. This must have pleased Diaghilev
enormously. He was a businessman, and scandal meant publicity, publicity
meant success, and success meant money! The famous debacle
of the première is often implicitly ascribed to Stravinsky's music,
whereas in fact, although there was some grumbling during the introduction,
the boos and catcalls did not start in earnest until the curtain rose and
the dancers made their first spasmodic movements. However, in those days
ballet and concert audiences were quite distinct animals, and the latter
(weaned on such as Mahler), generally approved of the music in subsequent
had, and still has, a tremendous power to shock. Yet, Stravinsky did nothing
truly new in the Rite. He himself had introduced polytonality (using
more than one key simultaneously) in Petrushka. Metric irregularity
(fluctuating time signatures and syncopation) was commonplace: Mahler's
Symphony (for example) changed metre four times in its first half dozen
bars. Polyrhythms (superimposing different rhythmic patterns) had already
been explored by Ives in the USA, although this was not well known at the
time. Discord as an expressive device was already prevalent - think of
Strauss and Mahler, not to mention the alarming - but again unknown - utterances
of Ives. Percussiveness had already been encountered in Prokofiev's First
Piano Concerto (and Mahler's Sixth!).
was something new, and that was the wholesale use of all these:
polytonality, metric irregularity, polyrhythms, discord, and percussiveness,
thrusting the traditionally dominant component of music - melody - into
the background, and cumulatively expressing a wholly original primitive
brutality. Then there's the orchestration. Some of Stravinsky's effects
were innovative, notably the rapidly repeating notes (as opposed to fluttertonguing)
on wind, and using the orchestra as a massive sledgehammer. Arthur Butterworth
reminded me that the Rite is much more violent heard in the piano
reduction: shorn of its orchestration, all the jagged edges stand out.
True, but nevertheless the colour, spectacle, and visceral impact of the
huge orchestra are part and parcel of this consummate concert experience.
rarely performed as ballet, the music enjoys immense popularity on the
concert platform. This is surprising, because it was conceived as one part
of a highly integrated production. The music alone should perhaps have
fallen from favour once the novelty had worn off. So from where does it
get its staying power? What is the secret of its independent success? Generally,
music divorced from theatrical origins flourishes either because it is
short, or because it possesses some inherent argument. The Rite
is not short. Yet, in spite of being basically a series of brief numbers
with no particular binding threads, it exudes a symphonic quality. This
derives most obviously from the family resemblance between the numbers.
But, far more importantly, each of the two parts repeats the same pattern,
lending symmetry to the work as a whole. During Part 1, while you
gasp at the progression of events, your brain is busy tracing the pattern.
In Part 2, you become aware (maybe only subliminally) that the same
structure is unfolding beneath a carpet of different music (the correspondences
are identified by capital letters in the synopsis below). OK, it's hardly
a symphonic argument, but the point is that it is an argument, and
not a common one either.
1 - The Adoration of the Earth
later, Stravinsky recalled his strongest memory of his Russian childhood:
“The violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like
the whole Earth cracking”. That this is almost certainly his true inspiration
is reflected here. The Introduction (A) coils and slithers polyphonically
(an element conspicuous by its virtual absence elsewhere in the work),
vividly analogising the stirrings of elemental life in the warming soil,
suddenly bursting into the Harbingers of Spring (B), throbbing and
pounding like some huge heart striving to pump blood.
of the Adolescents (C): the World bellows, and settles onto a regular
pulse as groups of adolescents initiate a Spring Festival, dancing to a
primitive folk-tune in a state of mounting excitement (nothing changes,
Abduction (D): Suddenly the mood changes in a vast upheaval, the orchestra
ablaze with lurid colour. Young men seize girls in an enactment of primeval
marriage (a firm tup with a wooden club, then drag her off by the hair,
Rounds (E): trilling woodwind usher in the deep, solemn tread of a
round-dance, the “slow movement” of Part 1, culminating in a climax of
shattering intensity, the tam-tam (its first appearance) towering like
some huge fountain. A brief rush of adrenalin, and we are back with the
of the Rival Tribes (F): braying tubas and hammering tympani announce
the climax of the festivities, the most rhythmically propulsive passage
in the entire ballet. Fearsome shrieks preface . . .
of the Sage (F): the Sage, young maidens in attendance, arrives to
a baleful ceremonial of tubas. The music piles up in layers, each pursuing
a different rhythmic pulse, sucking the whole orchestra into a seething
of the Earth (F): Hiatus . . . in the brief stillness comes a strange,
hushed chord as the Sage blesses the earth.
of the Earth (F): The scene erupts into a frenzied celebration, drums,
trumpets, horns, and strings rippling ecstatically!
2 - The Sacrifice
(A): In a mysterious, expectant pre-dawn, the Earth breathes in slumber.
Wisps of melody begin to coalesce as shadowy figures assemble.
Circles of the Adolescents (B): To an accompaniment of solo strings,
the young begin to dance. The men (no doubt secretly relieved) gradually
fall back, leaving the maidens to circle alone.
of the Chosen One (C): A sudden accelerando, a terrifying thunder of
eleven heavy chords from tympani and strings transfixes one maiden - the
Chosen, who now remains motionless as the other maidens (no doubt also
secretly relieved) glorify her in enraptured, ruptured dance (which, for
all its metric complexity, is a strict ternary form).
of the Ancestors (D): The maidens are stilled as the Elders call down
blessings from the god, woodwind and brass chanting in heavy syncopation,
punctuated by awesome drum-rolls.
of the Ancestors (E): To solemnly treading music (which Stravinsky
considered the prototype for many Hollywood “monster movies”), the Elders
make ritual preparation.
Dance (F): Suddenly, the Chosen One convulses. She begins to dance,
hesitantly at first, then with increasing frenzy as the ritual motion intoxicates
her very soul, transforming her into both victim and instrument of sacrifice.
Her vital energies are consumed in a fevered climactic passion. Exhausted,
she staggers and stumbles, until at last she draws erect for one infinite
moment. She falls, releasing her life-force to fertilise the Earth. One
writer commented, “the music here goes beyond the description of words”,
then described it in 120 words! It is truly astounding music, from which
Stravinsky relentlessly lashes the flesh until there remains only the most
primitive element, the skeleton of music: rhythm. But there is another
bombshell. Wild and revolutionary this music might be, but (however much
it might seem so) undisciplined it is not. The finale of the Rite,
like those of most of Haydn's symphonies, is cast in the form of a classical
rondo. Somehow I find that the most stunning, and pleasing, shock of all.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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