The Rite of Spring (1913): the Nationalistic Period of Stravinsky
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The Rite of Spring (1913): the Nationalistic Period of Stravinsky

One of the earlier masterworks of Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring. The shocking balletic work that nothing has equaled in early 100 years.

The son of a leading bass at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Igor Stravinsky studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy and Dukas. Following the commission of The Firebird (1910) by Serge Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes, Stravinsky went with the company to Paris and spent much of his time in France from then onwards, continuing his association with Diaghilev.

The booking of foreign artists and the performance of modern music were coming under official scrutiny and economic conditions were such that few organizations could no longer afford even a fraction of Stravinsky’s fee. Stravinsky's Munich recital with his duo partner in February 1933 was to be his last German concert appearance of any kind for more than three years, and with that single exception, a Baden-Baden performance of the Concerto for two solo pianos with his son Soulima in April 1936, his last public appearance in Germany until 1951.

Stravinsky composed his music at the keyboard, often struggling to play his own complex rhythms. While he had been groping toward neoclassicism for several years, 1923 marked the year when he became a fully confirmed neoclassicist. He continued to defy critics by pursuing the neoclassical style with increasing consistency, convinced that he had outgrown his complex neo-primitive style. Like Picasso - another twentieth century genius with whom the composer has often been compared - Stravinsky made many dramatic changes in his compositional style. His development as a composer can be traced through three principal stages: his nationalistic phase, demarcated by the three early balletic masterpieces, The Firebird (1910), Petrouchka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913); his neo-classical period which started with Pulcinella (1920), and continued up to his opera The Rake's Progress (1951); and his twelve-tone, serialist period which includes most, but not all, of the works composed after 1953. With each stylistic change, and even with each new work, Stravinsky managed to focus the world's attention on his art. A case in point, The Rite of Spring not only drew attention to the composer upon its first performance, but it created one of the most famous scandals in the history of music.

The world first experienced Stravinsky's trail-blazing ballet, The Rite of Spring, at a performance of Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russe, conducted by Pierre Monteux, at the Théåtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, on May 29, 1913. In reaction to the composer's revolutionary score, as much as to Nijinsky's choreography (which was considered lewd), the riot that ensued during this performance is by now legendary. The composer himself once recalled: "At the performance, mild protests against the music could be heard, from the beginning. Then when the curtain opened....the storm broke....I was unprepared for the explosion....I left the hall in a rage....I have never again been that angry." Explaining the audience's reaction, Stravinsky's biographer, Roman Vlad, wrote: "No one had ever heard music like it before; it seemed to violate all the most hallowed concepts of beauty, harmony, tone and expression. Never had an audience heard music so brutal, savage, aggressive and apparently chaotic; it hit the public like a hurricane, like some uncontrolled primeval force."

The impulse to write The Rite of Spring came to the composer one day in 1910 while he was immersed in the finishing touches for his first ballet, The Firebird. In his autobiography, Stravinsky wrote: "I had a fleeting vision that came to me as a complete surprise....I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring." The composer then consulted with his friend, the painter and archaeologist Nicholas Roerich, who happened to be an authority on pagan Russian culture and agreed to help him come up with a scenario for a new ballet. When Stravinsky told Diaghilev during rehearsals for The Firebird about his "vision," the Russian impresario immediately saw the dramatic possibilities of such a scenario and commissioned the composer to write the new work for the Ballet Russe. Later on, the composer admitted that the violent Russian spring, "the most wonderful event of every year of my childhood," was as much an inspiration as the dream-like vision. Spring is taken here as a symbol of the renewal of life, the fertility of humankind, and the mysteries of nature.

The composition of The Rite of Spring was delayed while Stravinsky immersed himself in writing the ballet Petrouchka, but by the summer of 1911 he began to write down thematic ideas for the new work. The work was begun in earnest in the fall and by the beginning of 1913 it had been completed; then the next four months were spent in touching up the orchestration and the arduous rehearsals and preparations for the premiere.

Nearly a century has passed since Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was unleashed upon its first unsuspecting and baffled audience. It has long since been recognized not only as a masterpiece, but as one of the seminal and most influential scores of this century. The effect of The Rite of Spring on composers has been so great that it could be said that, musically speaking, the twentieth century came into being with it. In this work are found the elevation of rhythm to a dominating position through its irregular and ever-changing rhythmic figurations and its volatile meters. The work is remarkable also for the freeing of traditional harmonic elements in the abstracting of sonorities and the startling use of discords, as well as for the fragmentation and hypnotic repetition of melodic elements.

The score of The Rite of Spring is divided into two parts comprising a total of fourteen sections, all played without interruption. The first part is called "The Adoration of the Earth." In the slow "Introduction," the bassoon presents a theme in its high register; this theme is derived from an old Lithuanian folksong. The music gradually increases in intensity as more instruments join in and a climax is soon reached, after which there is a brief reminder of the opening melody.

The first dance, "Auguries of Spring (Dance of the Young Maidens)," is dominated by a series of repeated of a chords consisting of the E major triad in combination with a dominant seventh chord on E-flat. These chords are brought to life by vivid and constant changes of meter, and they play a significant role in the harmonic language of the work, as well as providing the material for melodic fragments. Without a pause, and with a sudden change in tempo to presto, and the furious influx of percussive rhythm, "The Mock Abduction" is heard.

The intensity subsides and the tempo changes to tranquillo for the Spring Khorovod (Round Dance)" where fragments of another folk melody are presented. This gives way to an extended sostenuto e pesante ("sustained and heavily") section where the theme from the "Dance of the Young Maidens" is heard again against the swaying accompaniment.

A soft upper register introduces "The Games of the Rival Clans" with a sudden change to molto allegro. The short but intensely rhythmic "Procession of the Wise Elder" ends abruptly and the short pause plunges us into the wildly rhythmic and syncopated "Dance of the Earth" which concludes Part I in a veritable explosion of sound.

"The Sacrifice" makes up the second part of the ballet. An eerie atmosphere is evoked in the quiet "Introduction" with a series of descending chords after which a Russian melody is heard in muted voice. The "Mystical Circle of the Young Maidens" makes use of the previous Russian melody in combination with a number of related melodic fragments. The tempo increases gradually as the "Glorification of the Victim" takes place with its fast and violent rhythmic patterns full of syncopation.

A sudden cessation of rhythmic motion and a dramatic percussive roll brings about the short "Summoning of the Ancients." This leads directly into "Ritual of the Ancients," marked by its regular pulsation, starting quietly in the lower depths of the piano but soon gaining in volume and intensity.

The final "Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen Victim)" presents one of the most complex and furious manipulations of rhythm and harmony ever employed in a piece of music. As the music reaches its final climax and pitch of frenzy the rite comes to an end with one last primeval outburst.

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Comments (7)

Another great piece. I'm especially interested in ritual music.

Then, may I recommend Messiaen...which might be an upcoming topic.

and thanks, James.

Ranked #4 in Music & Musicians

A wonderful scholarly assessment. You illuminate his contribution to the Ballets Russes brilliantly, for which I'm very grateful. I'm facinated by the Ballets Russes, but understand them more in terms of their visual desing. I think you're the best writer on Factoidz.

Ranked #4 in Music & Musicians

Visual 'design', I meant.

Ranked #4 in Music & Musicians

Just returning with my vote.

Thanks!

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