Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Beginning in high school, my best friend became a guy named Gary Endicott, of whom I’ve already written. His parents had a Reader’s Digest collection of records with a title like: “The World’s Greatest Classical Music.” They had loaned me a few of the records from it, pieces like Handel’s Water Music. The collection also contained a copy of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which I gave a spin to one day. I had heard of Stravinsky and thought that it might be interesting to listen to some “modern” music. What amazes me now is my initial reaction. When I turned it on and the music started, I distinctly remember turning to Gary and saying something like: “God, what is that noise?”

How funny then that a couple of years later, while living at the French House (where I lived during my sophomore year at Indiana University), Stravinsky’s music caught my attention and has held it ever since. In fact, were one to ask me the name of my favorite composer, the name Stravinsky would be the first off my lips. This makes me wonder whether one’s brain must go through some developmental stages that mirror the development of western music, so that you can only listen to certain pieces when you are receptive. Kind of like the “ontongeny recapitulates phylogeny argument” but with swing.

Ironically, I had heard part of The Rite of Spring the semester before, in the Fall of 1974, at a viewing of the Walt Disney film, Fantasia. I think that was probably the most ill-conceived part of the entire film. Disney had shortened the work and used it to illustrate the creation of the world and the hostile conditions on the earth during the time of the dinosaurs. It’s too bad they used it for this section. It just didn’t work and seeing those stupid images just kept me from approaching the work with an unbiased mind.

I believe I might be forgiven my philistinism back in high school. As almost everyone knows, the opening of the Rite of Spring caused one of the greatest scandal in the world of serious music. In Paris, no less, (culture capital of the world) a hostile crowd booed the work at its premier in 1913. Various writers and Stravinsky himself gave different explanations for the fiasco. Though Stravinsky claimed that he was just going the next step in the development of traditional western music, his emphasis on rhythm (and vary complex and interwoven ones at that) broke with the current fashion of Ravel and Debussy’s impressionism in which emotions were expressed via exotic orchestration. Stravinsky also pushed the envelope in terms of orchestration and instrumentation which caused many people to label the music as dissonant.

Setting a ballet to the music also presented problems. The impresario Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to write it for his Ballet Russe troupe after the successes of The Firebird and Petrushhka. The company’s lead dancer, Nijinsky, had his dancers count out the complex rhythms in Russian, which proved a mistake since numbers above ten in that language are polysyllabic. So the dancers made a hash of the production. Another writer pointed to the fact that the Russian émigrés living in Paris at this time period were not particularly welcome. They were seen, as the Algerians and Africans are today in the “city of light” as taking away jobs from the natives. A number of anti-Russian agitators reportedly attended the premier and made catcalls. Whatever the causes, a fistfight broke out in the auditorium, which eventually spilled out into the neighborhood. When I was at Indiana University, the only thing that ever provoked a riot was when the basketball team won the national championship.

Though 101 years have passed since it’s premier, the music still seems fresh and daring. The idea for The Rite of Spring came to Stravinsky in a dream. He supposedly envisioned a young sacrificial virgin dancing herself to death in a pagan fertility ritual. The work is divided into two parts: “The Adoration of the Earth” and “The Sacrifice.” Each of these is broken down into a number of smaller named piece, but they flow into one another without pause. The first movement starts out with a mournful tune played in the upper register of the bassoon. And this points out one of the most interesting parts of Stravinsky’s work: the way in which he uses traditional instruments in non-traditional ways. In the first movement of the “Sacrifice” section, for example, he has a pair of trumpets play at different intervals to create a haunting mood. Stravinsky also gave lesser known instruments major roles like the b-flat clarinet.

A couple of years ago, my friend John Kim and I went to a performance of The Rite of Spring at the Kennedy Center. Leonard Slatkin conducted and we managed to get seats at the front of the nosebleed loggia looking down on the orchestra. These turned out to be ideal seats. Normally all you get to see are the musicians who lie along the first plane parallel to the conductor. Our perch afforded us a view of every member of the orchestra and I could actually see how Stravinsky moved the dominant melody around the orchestra and had certain groups play off one another. This added so much to my appreciation of the piece.

That was a nice surprise–after about 23 years of loving this piece, I found something in it that held a surprise for me. Just like old friends.

Stravinsky Biography

Download MP3 or buy CD of Stravinsky: Petroushka (Original 1911 Version) & The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) from Amazon

About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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