Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Igor Stravinsky

The day seems to have passed, thankfully, for at least one development sparked by Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (1913): the concert review in ersatz, proto-Dr. Seuss-style verse, e.g.:

Who wrote this fiendish Rite of Spring

What right had he to write the thing,

Against our helpless ears to fling

Its crash, clash, cling, clang, bing, bang, bing?

And then to call it Rite of Spring,

the season when on joyous wing

The birds melodious carols sing

And harmony's in everything!

He who could write the Rite of Spring,

If I be right, by right should swing!

While lynching the composer -- which the anonymous author in the Boston Herald of February 9, 1924 appears to advocate in his last couplet -- seems a bit excessive as a pan, one must remember that such vituperations only added to the air of succès de scandale that had surrounded Rite since its Paris premiere some ten years earlier. Certainly, the impact of this legendary event (as well as similarly "colorful" receptions to the work elsewhere) expedited its recognition as an all-around seminal occurrence and achievement in the social history and art of the twentieth century. In understanding early reactions to Rite, it is worth considering that while Stravinsky was at a relatively early stage in his career, a cadre of older, well-known, more traditionally aligned composers -- Strauss, Saint-Saëns, Sibelius, Elgar, and yes, Rachmaninov -- remained active and retained a good deal of currency with audiences. At the same time, the scenario adopted by the Rite collaborators -- Stravinsky, folklorist and artist Roerich, choreographer Nijinsky, impresario Diaghilev -- was far from the usual genteel, sentimental, and romantic themes that had theretofore dominated ballet. This collection of "Scenes from Pagan Russia" (the work's subtitle) concerns itself with an exploration of nature, both human and that of the earth itself, through the rituals of renewal -- ultimately, human sacrifice -- of an earlier, "primitive" society.

The titles of the ballet's two main sections, "A Kiss of the Earth" and "The Exalted Sacrifice," as well as those of their internal divisions, make clear both the ritualistic, sacred, and inviolable progression of events reenacted via music and choreography, and the elements of that progression. Stravinsky skillfully sustains and continually heightens a sense of brutal inevitability over the span of the whole work while encapsulating more specific elements in individual scenes. The Introduction raises the curtain on the earth itself, the distinctive bassoon solo plaintively establishing a hushed, reverent mood. More complex colors -- which Stravinsky achieves through extreme instrumental ranges (as in the above instance), special playing techniques, and endlessly changing combinations drawn from his greatly expanded orchestra -- gradually emerge and expand, only to be cut off subito by a remnant of the original bassoon theme. "The Augurs of Spring" begins with one of the most famous chords in music history, a crunching bitonal sonority hammered relentlessly in a constant 2/4 meter metrically undermined by unpredictably shifting accents.

Comparable instances of such rhythmic and harmonic harshness abound throughout the work, these elements assuming, along with instrumental color, both individual and collective roles in a manner analogous to those of the characters. Like the musical elements Stravinsky uses in their portrayal, the girls, youths, and elders function together within the identity of their society, at the same time assuming and asserting individual roles in relation to one another. The action forges ahead in an increasingly frenzied trajectory, finding culmination -- in a sort of primal equivalent of cold logic -- in the charged, uncompromising sacrifical dance which ends both the ballet and the cycle of its ritual.

-- Michael Rodman