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The Rite of Spring - The Music of Modernity
By Gillian Moore
208 pages including index
Published 2019 Head of Zeus
Gillian Moore, the Director of Music at London’s Southbank Centre, here offers a lively and interesting overview of Stravinsky’s game-changing masterpiece. It’s not a detailed study – the text and copious illustrations only cover 191 pages – but its relative brevity does not imply superficiality. Ms Moore clearly knows her subject and she gets the essential facts and narrative across in a succinct, highly readable style.
Her first chapter, ‘Who was Igor Stravinsky?’ gives us a summary of the composer’s early life and his privileged upbringing in St Petersburg, including his introduction to and studies with Rimsky-Korsakov. Gillian Moore really gets into her stride, though, with the second chapter, ‘The Reinvention of the Russian Soul’. Here, she deals with the nineteenth-century awakening of interest in the hinterland of Russian culture, touching on such elements as the Decembrist revolt of 1825, the emergence of the ‘Mighty Handful’ and the influence of the cultural magazine Mir iskusstva (‘The World of Art’). What I like about her approach in this chapter is that, albeit briefly, she ranges far more widely than music, referring also to the visual arts, for example. She goes on to discuss the craze for Russian culture – including the fashion for clothing inspired by it – that was all the rage in early twentieth-century Paris. Her wide-ranging approach is very important because, as she reminds us, Diaghilev envisaged in works such as The Firebird and The Rite something much more than “just” a ballet; these were to be Gesamkunstwerke in which the scenarios, the designs and the costumes were to be as vitally important as the choreography and music. Ms Moore covers all this in some 30 pages, quite a few of which are devoted to illustrations, but what she manages to do here is to give a stimulating overview which will prompt the reader who wishes to discover more to do so in more specialist books and articles.
The title of the third chapter is self-explanatory: ‘From a Dream to a First Night: The Making of The Rite of Spring’. Here is outlined Stravinsky’s collaboration with the painter Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947), who had a passion for Russian cultural antiquity. In particular, she points out that in the decade or so prior to the creation of The Rite, Roerich’s paintings were preoccupied with images of pre-Christian Slavic civilizations. She describes how the composer worked on the structure, shape and concept of the ballet with Roerich, all of which was largely in place by the summer of 1911 though Stravinsky had yet to start work on the actual composition. The process of composition was very swift, considering the complexity of the music: Part One was finished around the end of February/early March 1912 and, while suffering from a raging toothache, Stravinsky completed the score at the beginning of November that same year. Moore relates the narrative of both the composition and rehearsal processes adroitly.
The turbulent premiere of The Rite on 29 May 1913 is an event that has gone down in musical history. ‘A Hot Night in May’ is the apt – and accurate - title of the chapter that describes the premiere. However, despite the notoriety of that evening, Gillian Moore characterises the event as “unknowable” since there are so many contradictions in the many surviving contemporary accounts. The uproarious scene of the audience reaction is vividly described: one marvels that Pierre Monteux and the orchestra – let alone the dancers – kept going to the end. Importantly, she reminds us that Nijinsky’s choreography was at least as disturbing and bafflingly controversial as Stravinsky’s music.
There are two good chapters on the music itself. In the first of these, ‘What was so new?’ Gillian Moore points out the many novel aspects of Stravinsky’s creation. But she very rightly demonstrates how much of the music of The Rite was founded in established musical and rhythmic forms which Stravinsky then stretched – often to breaking point – in new and highly original ways. This originality, for example, applies to the scoring. As Moore points out, the forces used in The Rite are not gargantuan by the standards of the time but it’s the way Stravinsky uses the instruments that creates the distinctive and potent sound world of the score; for example, the way in which the strings are to a large extent subservient to the other sections of the orchestra rather than playing the key role assigned to them in so much Romantic music.
The second chapter on the music is ‘The Rite Step by Step: A Listening Guide’. This takes us through the individual sections of the score, one by one. As the author says, this chapter is ideally read while listening to a recording. However, if you know the work reasonably well the descriptions of what is going on in the score are sufficiently vivid and accurate that one can hear the music in one’s head. One feature that I like about this chapter is that frequent references are included to what happened onstage at particular junctures in the score.
The concluding chapter deals with ‘The Aftershocks’. Not long before reading this book I reviewed a recent CD of a live 2018 performance by the New York Philharmonic and I asked the not very original question: ‘Has Le Sacre lost its power to shock?’ I went on to say: ‘Orchestral standards have risen to such heights nowadays that orchestras seem to think nothing of the challenges of Stravinsky’s radical masterpiece. Indeed, many youth orchestras are more than capable of giving highly assured performances of the work.’ This very point is addressed by Gillian Moore also and she cites the concerns of several leading conductors that this must be avoided. I’ll come back to this issue in a moment. Moore reminds us of the debt to The Rite that is evident
in works by several twentieth-century composers, including Prokofiev and Varèse. As time wore on, the innovations in Stravinsky’s score become part of the compositional lingua franca of contemporary music. Furthermore, The Rite found its way into popular culture, one example being the use – daring for its time – of music from the score in Disney’s celebrated Fantasia. (Stravinsky was paid $6,000 for the rights
to use his music; a sum equivalent to over $100,000 today.) Moore also discusses some of the choreographic history of the ballet in the post-Nijinsky era, including the painstaking reconstruction of Nijinsky’s original choreography made by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer for the Joffrey Ballet, who first performed it in 1987.
At the end of her book, Gillian Moore offers a selection of eight recordings of The Rite. Among these recommendations are: Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 version (review); the composer’s own 1960 recording (review); and the revelatory period instrument version by François-Xavier Roth (review). I’ve heard most of the recordings she nominates and I think her choices are very sound but might I add a couple of my own? In doing so, I’m reverting to my earlier question about the work and its power to shock now that orchestras are no longer audibly stretched by what they’re playing. One recording that gives us a sense of what The Rite may have sounded like in 1913 is the 1929 recording by Pierre Monteux. The sound is fairly primitive and the players are audibly challenged but there’s a real whiff of authenticity to what we hear (review). Less easily accessible, because it’s contained in a large boxed set, is a live 1951 account by Leonard Bernstein conducting the NYPO. The sound is limited and balances are often less than ideal but there’s an electricity and animal energy to the performance that leave one breathless (review).
The Rite of Spring is a truly seminal work in twentieth-century music; more than that, it’s a key work in twentieth-century culture. Gillian Moore has told its story and, crucially, explained its context, in this excellent book. Don’t mistake the relative brevity of the book for shallowness. This eminently readable volume is the product of deep knowledge and also of deep respect for Stravinsky’s masterpiece. It’s an excellent introduction for the general reader but those who are familiar with The Rite will find Ms Moore’s book to be not only an invaluable summary but also a study from which everyone can learn something. The book is beautifully and copiously illustrated with many evocative black-and-white contemporary photographs and also a large number of colour illustrations, all of which are highly relevant to the subject matter.
I enjoyed this excellent book and I also acquired from it a better understanding of Stravinsky’s formidable and vitally important score