In one of the most frequently recounted episodes of 20th century music, the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring ended in an audience riot as the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées erupted in protest. To modern listeners, the most striking feature of the Russian composer’s third ballet is its high level of dissonance; jarring, oppressive chords tear through the soundscape in an unrelenting cacophony of clashing sounds. Yet, for those attending its premiere there were a number of other disagreeable characteristics of the performance. Indeed, Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography, labelled as “uncouth” by one reviewer, contributed as much to the audience’s indignation as the music.
Musically, in addition to its provocative harmonic character, perhaps what was most shocking to the ballet’s early audience was Stravinsky’s abandonment of classical melodic and harmonic development in favour of the foregrounding of the rhythmic and timbral properties of the music. The Rite of Spring proceeds in a series of disjointed miniatures exploring the kaleidoscopic potential of orchestral colour; wildly oscillating timbres contour the ballet’s progression as musty, pungent webs of woodwind are violently ruptured by volcanic masses of brass and searing strings. The music is thrust forward by strident rhythms, perpetually derailed by off-kilter syncopation preventing the establishment of any sense of regular flow. Each musical gesture in The Rite of Spring is nightmarishly exaggerated to form a sinister, uneasily contorted aural world.
Stravinsky’s melodic writing centres around brief interlocking motifs; snippets of Russian folk melodies are densely layered in a fragmentary collage, enacting a collision between the traditional music of his country and the techniques of modernist composition. This juxtaposition of the archaic with the fiercely contemporary imparts a thrilling dramatic tension to The Rite of Spring, bestowing a dialogic depth to its ruthless explorations of rhythm. Equally likely to be described as barbaric or primitive as it is avant-garde or sophisticated, this piece gains as much of its potency from looking backwards in time as it does from forging stubbornly ahead. Remarkable in appealing simultaneously to both the visceral and the cerebral with equal fervour, The Rite of Spring is superficially petulant and temperamental whilst somehow maintaining an aura of austerity.
In his memoir, Stravinsky claimed that the narrative of the ballet had come to him in a horrifying, lucid vision of three years prior: “I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death.” Whether the story of the work’s inception is true or merely a case of retrospective myth-making is an interesting question, but the brutal nature of the ballet’s climactic ritual, combined with the pummelling physicality of the music, provoked early onlookers into a state of frenzied outrage. In the time since the piece was written, rhythm and timbre have become primary concerns in much Western music: from the minimalism of Reich and Glass to the hip-hop of J Dilla and Madlib. The monumental break with tradition that The Rite of Spring represents is thus diminished in its impact today but Stravinsky’s ballet remains a thrillingly direct and engaging piece of music.
Below is a recording of The Rite of Spring followed by a brief listening guide.
The Rite of Spring is cast in two main parts, both of which are further divided into smaller episodes.
Part I opens with the furtive fluttering of a solo bassoon in its highest register, soon joined by the other woodwinds. The insistent motif on pizzicato strings first heard at 2:48 brings the introductory passage to a close, ushering in the obsessive rhythms of 3:11-6:20; although the rhythm remains constant throughout this section, a vitality is instilled as unexpected beats of the bar are stressed. Following a brief volcanic outburst of brass, some semblance of order is retained at 7:38 with a short interlude of woodwinds. A creeping figure in the low strings enters at 8:12 and leads the musical progression until 10:23. Following another brief interlude, the music proceeds in a series of fragmentary passages of increasing rhythmic drive until Part I crashes to a close at 15:06.
Part II begins quietly with a passage of mysteriously lilting woodwinds, strings and distant brass (15:10-20:06). After a melodically expressive section dominated by the strings, a pounding rhythm is introduced at 22:44, thrust forward by the driving percussion. Another moment of respite ensues after which the climactic passage of the ballet begins at 28:38. In this final scene, the chosen sacrifice dances herself to death, accompanied by thunderous brass and percussion.
Being probably Stravinsky’s best known work, The Rite of Spring has been recorded numerous times. The recording above is performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Seiji Ozawa, chosen for its fine balance of savagery and attention to detail. For a particularly barbaric, if somewhat scruffy, performance, Valery Gergiev’s recording with the Kirov Orchestra is recommended. Stravinsky himself also conducts a brilliant recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, taking the score somewhat faster than most modern performances.
Both of Stravinsky’s other ballets from this period explore similar musical ideas to The Rite of Spring but in a more melodious, late Romantic setting: 1910’s The Firebird is one of Stravinsky’s major pieces and 1911’s Petrushka is awash with rhythmic vitality. Many other composers of Stravinsky’s generation explored the folk traditions of their own countries. In particular, Béla Bartók devoted much of his career to the research of Hungary’s indigenous music, assimilating his findings into his compositions; his cycle of six string quartets is highly recommended.
Artwork: Three Women, Pablo Picasso
by Thomas May