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Rite of Spring

Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps)

The Ballet’s Episodes:

Part One: The Adoration of the Earth

Introduction, and The Harbingers of Spring
Dances of the Adolescents
Spring Rounds
Games of the Rival Tribes
Procession of the Sage
Dance of the Earth

Part Two: The Sacrifice

Introduction
Mystical Circle of the Adolescents
Glorification of the Victim
Evocation of the Ancestors
Ritual of the Ancestors
Sacrificial Dance - The Victim

The first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, given by the Diaghilev Ballet Company at the Champs-Elysées Theatre in Paris on the 29th of May 1913, provoked a scandal of unprecedented violence in the history of music. From the very opening, the strange, primeval sounds conjuring up, in Stravinsky’s words, ‘the awakening of nature’, caused a few protests amongst the audience, who were experiencing a totally new kind of music, with dissonant and piercingly penetrating sounds in extreme registers of the woodwind that were unimaginable. Only a few minutes later when, again in Stravinsky’s words ‘the curtain rose on a group of knockneed, long-braided lolitas jumping up and down - Danses des Adolescents’, pandemonium broke out. From then, pro and anti factions in the audience vied with each other even to the extent of exchanging physical blows. Somehow the conductor, a young Pierre Monteux, managed to keep the performance going to the end, by which time a near riot had broken out, and the gendarmes had to be called. Stravinsky, Monteux and the artist Valentine Gross were just some of the artists and intellectuals who later gave vivid accounts of the extraordinary happenings that night.

Nothing remotely like this had ever occurred at a performance of music. Stravinsky had unleashed something so intense and so unexpected that people were either aroused and amazed, or shocked and offended. The subject matter itself, a pagan sacrificial rite, and the daringly physical choreography may well have contributed to some of the ‘scandale’, but it was surely the unprecedented, provocative power of the music that shook the audience so traumatically. Brutal, primitive sounding rhythms from strings and percussion and wild shrieking sounds from woodwind and brass alternated with eerie moments of calm in which all kinds of unfamiliar harmonies and sound effects created an almost supernatural atmosphere. And it was not just the audience which was experiencing something totally unfamiliar. Completely new kinds of changing rhythmic metres, harmonic key relationships and angular musical lines posed totally novel sorts of challenges for all the orchestra and the conductor as well. The première of the Rite of Spring had necessitated an enormous amount of rehearsal, including seventeen for the orchestra, but even then this music was so new and different from anything that had ever been heard before that the performers’ were exceptionally keyed up with tension on that now legendary first night.

Their tension was most appropriately in keeping with the entire subject of the Rite of Spring. Stravinsky said he had one day had a vision of a pagan rite in which a young adolescent girl is ritualistically chosen to sacrifice her life to celebrate the coming of Spring.

Part One of the ballet, ‘The Adoration of the Earth’ opens at the foot of a sacred hill where, as Harbingers of Spring, Slavonic tribes are performing the Spring rites. An old witch predicts the future, and after the Dances of the Adolescents a young woman is violently captured for marriage in a Mock Abduction. There follows the Spring Rounds which starts mysteriously and calmly and then suddenly erupts into a barbaric assault from the timpani, bass drum, tam-tam and brass. After the ensuing Games of the Rival Tribes, the most solemn and awe-inspiring moment comes with the Procession of the Sage, as the head of the Wise Elders enters and imprints his sacred kiss on the earth to the sounds of the entire orchestra screaming the agony and ecstacy felt by the crowd. In this passage Stravinsky includes a part for a Guiro (sometimes called the Rape), an ancient tribal instrument carved out of a bamboo stick, which scrapes and grinds its own rhythm against all the other rhythms played in the earsplitting clamour of the rest of the orchestra. Then, suddenly all is menacingly silent. After a few weird, sounds from the bassoons, double basses, and timpani and a barely audible strange chord for the strings, the bass drum and tam-tam erupt with the final dance of Part One, the Dance of the Earth, as the crowd is seized with a mystic, wild terror. Like the previous dance, this ends suddenly as though in mid stream, and again there is silence.

Part Two, ‘The Sacrifice’, begins with a mysteriously eerie, and oppressively laden atmosphere, full of portent and dormant physical power. In the Mystical Circles of the Adolescents an evocative flute solo signifies the start of the episode in which young virgins dance in circles and then choose the girl who will be the sacrificial victim. As four timpani, bass drum and full strings hammer out eleven brutal chords, the new dance ‘The Glorification of the Victim’ begins, with almost every bar in a different time signature, evoking the disturbed excitement of the crowd. This is interrupted by the slower but demonic Evocation of the Ancestors which transforms into the sinister sounding Ritual of the Ancestors, as a tense, fearful calm takes over the rite. After one violent and volcanic interruption, the sinister calm returns as everyone prepares for the final, terrifying episode: the Sacrificial Dance, The Victim. Her, the chosen victim’s gyrating, jerking dance is written in explosive spasms with constant sudden changes of metre and rhythm, evoking the panic and dislocation of her body and mind as she dances towards her death. The crowd then celebrates her impending end with a barbaric procession in which the whole orchestra screams its acclamation. Now the time has come. In the closing bars of the ballet the sacrificial victim dances in an increasingly frenzied trance until she collapses and expires. In just a moment’s suspense, to the sudden delicate trilling sounds of high strings and a quick run from the flutes, the elders offer their sacrifice to the god, Jarilo; and then, with two huge discordant crashes, the curtain falls.


The Diaghilev and Stravinsky Relationship

The great Russian arts impressario Serge Diaghilev first met Stravinsky in 1909 in St Petersburg. Two recent works of the young Igor Stravinsky, the son of the celebrated Mariinsky Opera bass Feodor, were being performed at the forward looking Ziloti Concerts, which had been founded by the conductor Alexander Ziloti at the end of the 19th Century. Diaghilev was aroused by the bizarre and brilliant new sounds in Stravinsky’s short orchestral work Feux d’artifices (Fireworks) and introduced himself to the composer after the concert. Immediately they became friends and Diaghilev invited him to become involved with his radical new dance company, the Ballet Russes, which was planning a completely new kind of ballet season for Paris.

Diaghilev had formed an extraordinary company in which some of the most outstandingly innovative choreographers, painters and musicians were collaborating to create bold new works that were to become revolutionary landmarks of the 20th Century. Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, de Falla, Picasso, Bakst, Matisse, Cocteau, Fokine, Nijinsky, Karsavina, and Balanchine were some of the great figures in Diaghilev’s new company, and they were all profoundly influenced by his remarkable imagination and acumen.

Although Diaghilev and his artists frequently had quite violent disagreements, Diaghilev exerted a colossal intellectual driving force over his company. However, it was in fact Stravinsky who conceived the idea and scenario of the Rite of Spring, which Diaghilev in due course accepted. Stravinsky later recounted, though, that before he had completed the Rite Diaghilev had encouraged him to use an exceptionally large orchestra, which would certainly be of unheard of proportions for the ballet. In his famous recorded commentary on the Rite 'A Propos Le Sacre' Stravinsky says that Diaghilev's request influenced his decision to orchestrate the Rite on such a vast scale. Clearly Diaghilev had already prophetically recognised that the Rite was going to be one of the most revolutionary works in the history of music. Pierre Monteux, the conductor of the work's world première, later recalled that when Stravinsky played the Rite to him for the first time on the piano in 1912 he (Monteux) was totally baffled by it but Diaghilev, who was there, told him it was a masterpiece which would completely revolutionise music and make Monteux famous. Diaghilev's prediction was remarkably accurate.

The astonishing scenes of fighting at the première of the Rite of Spring struck an intensely painful blow to Stravinsky at the time, but for Diaghilev this was a perfect triumph. Stravinsky and also other artists involved have recalled how for Diaghilev everything could not have gone more ideally to plan, as he was, in Stravinsky’s words ‘delighted with the scandal’.

© Jon Tolansky


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