A piece of music which is on my mind very much at present is Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, or to give it its English title The Rite Of Spring. 2013 marks the centenary of its first performance on 29 May 1913 in Paris. This centenary is being celebrated all over the world, with live performances, books and CD releases. I’ve a small part in all this, as I’m teaching a course on the Rite for Oxford University Dept. of Continuing Education in the summer.
The first performance of the Rite is legendary because of the so-called ‘riot’ that broke out among the audience. A certain percentage of the audience reacted angrily to the Rite‘s flouting of their expectations of what ballet and music should be. The ballet was created by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company, with choreography by Nijinsky and scenery by Nicholas Roerich. The dancers wore costumes, used postures and movements that were contrary to traditional ballet.
The ballet is set in an imaginary ancient Russia and centres on a ritual to bring the spring in which a girl is selected from the tribe and who dances herself to death. As such, it is a work which could be seen to synchronously anticipate the sacrifice of youth during the First World War.
Stravinsky’s music may only have been partially heard. It is recorded that even the large orchestra crammed into the pit at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees was often drowned out by the noise from the auditorium, and the dancers often couldn’t hear it. Given the irregular rhythms and time-signatures, this made their task even harder. The legend of this first performance had problematic consequences for the arts in the C20th, since it set up a false expectation that being shocking was a guarantee of a work’s profundity and relevance. Thus, by the late C20th, it became assumed that an audience’s shock was by definition an inauthentic response (which is not the case – sometimes being shocked is an appropriate and human response). But that’s a big topic …
The Rite later became one of the centrepieces of C20th concert-hall music and rightly so. It reached a generation of children via an adulterated version in the Walt Disney film Fantasia. It remains a startling, invigorating and thrilling 35 minutes, in which Stravinsky discovered a new continent of rhythm and harmony which composers have been exploring ever since. His use of dissonance is at times strikingly beautiful. The Rite is also a paradoxical work in which Russian folk tunes are re-worked into irregular un-folk-like forms, just as a sophisticated orchestral score is used to evoke the primitive.
A few weeks ago I heard a live performance of the four-hand piano version made by the composer. With the elaborate orchestration removed, the rhythmic and harmonic effects stand-out in bold relief. I’ve been looking at this version closely myself for the course and it is fascinating. I know of no more unearthly and seemingly inexplicable chord progression than that which forms the introduction to part two of the Rite (which I read recently was originally titled ‘Pagan Night’), where minor triads oscillate over an unrelated D minor. The Rite is full of the most amazing harmonic and melodic sounds which you can never experience if you only listen to popular music.
If you want to explore the Rite there are many orchestral recordings available. There are also recordings of the piano version, though I would not start with this. The films Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky and Riot at the Rite evoke something of the reality of the first performance. There is also DVD of a recreation of the original ballet with Gergiev conducting. If you find you like the Stravinsky of the Rite you should explore the earlier ballet Petrouchka and the later Symphony in Three Movements.