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  Founder: Len Mullenger

Stravinsky (1882-1971) - The Rite of Spring

N.B. This 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.

From 1913, 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. 

Stravinsky 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 Symphonie Fantastique

According 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. 

It was 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 concert performances. 

The music 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 Eighth 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!). 

But there 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. 

Although 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. 

Part 1 - The Adoration of the Earth

Years 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. 

Dances 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, does it?). 

Mock 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, perhaps?). 

Spring 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 trilling woodwind. 

Games 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 . . . 

Procession 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 maelstrom of sound. 

Adoration of the Earth (F): Hiatus . . . in the brief stillness comes a strange, hushed chord as the Sage blesses the earth. 

Dance of the Earth (F): The scene erupts into a frenzied celebration, drums, trumpets, horns, and strings rippling ecstatically! 

Part 2 - The Sacrifice

Introduction (A): In a mysterious, expectant pre-dawn, the Earth breathes in slumber. Wisps of melody begin to coalesce as shadowy figures assemble. 

Mystical 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. 

Glorification 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). 

Evocation 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. 

Ritual of the Ancestors (E): To solemnly treading music (which Stravinsky considered the prototype for many Hollywood “monster movies”), the Elders make ritual preparation. 

Sacrificial 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, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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