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

Amilcare Ponchielli, Dance of the Hours from La Gioconda

Gosh, once more I have to write about Fantasia. That is not where I first heard this piece of music, however. Before seeing how Disney illustrated it with dancing hippopotami, I became aware of the piece, though not its origin, when I was a boy.

Back in the early 1960s, when I was about 6 or 7, a comedian named Alan Sherman issued an album in which he performed a number of satirical songs. One of these went by the title of “Camp Grenada.” Sherman set it to an incredibly sweet sounding piece of music, which I’d probably heard even before that, maybe in some other cartoon. Sherman’s lyrics went something like:

“Hello Mudda,
Hello Fadda,
Here I am at,
Camp Grenada.
Camp is very
Entertaining,
They said we’d have some fun if it stops raining.”

It scans perfectly.

The Dance of the Hours comes from Ponchielli’s opera, La Gioconda.  It is based on a play by Victor Hugo, and is set in the time of the Venetian Inquisition.  It is not a happy piece and mirrors at times, Romeo and Juliet.  The heroine starts out good, becomes jealous and bad, and redeems herself before having to kill herself to escape the clutches of an evil schemer named Barnaba, who drowned Gioconda’s mother.  Whew.

Poor Ponchielli. This is the only one of his works that anyone knows. The opera is his only one still in the reperatoire.

Ponchielli’s career was eclipsed by that of Verdi, on of the most prolific and best loved composers of the 19th century. Amilcare Ponchielli does have one other claim to fame–he was Puccini’s teacher, and we of course know what became of him.

For a racier verison, check this out (CAUTION CONTAINS NUDITY)

Ponchielli Biography

Download MP3s or buy CD of Ponchielli: La Gioconda

Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

A few weeks ago, I wrote about having gone to see Fantasia for the first time in the fall of 1974.  Everyone on campus at the time looked forward to its re-release. Many friends talked about how great it would be to get high and go see it.

This reveals how drug use had changed between the 60s and 70s. Back in the 60s, when LSD and marijuana hit the scene, gurus like Timothy Leary claimed drugs helped break through the culturally-imposed barriers that stifled creativity. These barriers, Leary reasoned, turned us into automatons that could be told to go to church, fight wars, and be productive consumers. People took drugs to expand their minds and gain new insights into life.  If that’s true, it makes me wonder,  when you turn inward, where do the images and ideas you get come from?

Remember that people who were in their 20s during the 1960s had not grown up with television, and so their child-like sense of wonder probably had radically different roots than the next group of us baby boomers. My peers and I, on the other hand–born in the 50s–grew up watching cartoons on Saturday mornings and on the Walt Disney hour on Sunday evenings. Our sense of wonder focused on cuteness. When drugs were used to get back to that childish state, Fantasia was the perfect vehicle.

In my childhood, we religiously watched the Walt Disney Hour on Sunday evenings.  One clip that you would some times catch a glimpse of on the show was Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. That image of Mickey dressed in the star-studded robes of a magician, taken from the movie, had also become a kind of symbol. You could buy posters of it and even find three dimensional statues of it in “collectable” stores. It went from cute to kitsch.

Some people, though, feel the entire movie epitomizes kitsch. That’s one of the reasons Stravinsky hated Fantasia. Why can’t the music stand by itself? He felt putting pictures to it created a mental crutch for people who don’t understand music and therefore could not approach it intellectually. That is kind of an elitist view.  Stravinsky I later learned got no royalties from Disney for the use of his score because of copyright issues, so he might have had a monetary axe to grind.

My complaint about Fantasia goes back to this question: “who says the mental images evoked by the cartoonists are preferable to one’s own?” Oddly enough, Stravinsky’s own Rite of Spring, eventually became my second favorite piece by the composer, but the interpretation of it in the movie–darkly colored with dinosaurs and erupting volcanoes–to my mind at least was absolutely ghastly. That actually put me off from giving it the due it deserved. Still, when Fantasia was re-released in theatres when my daughters were toddlers, I took them to see it, and later bought them the videocassette.

Of course, Stravinsky didn’t say what he thought about music that intended to evoke mental images. Both Beethoven and Mahler imitate cuckoos in their Sixth and First symphonies. Arthur Honegger wrote a piece called Pacific 231 that imitates a train. And Mozart’s father Leopold wrote a symphony with an irritating bird whistle in it. Think about the reverse situation, as well: you wouldn’t want to sit through most movies, documentaries, and other moving visual images without a musical sound track. The most abortive attempt I ever witnessed of putting music to visual images occurred in Paris. In the basement of the old Tuileries gallery, an entire room was dedicated to the display of a wrap-around series of tableaus that Monet had done of the water lilies on his pond at Giverny. Some composer had created a musical accompaniment, played on the organ, to help the listener appreciate the paintings more, I guess. It was the most depressing music I ever heard and did not fit the beauty of the water lilies in the least.

I do feel, however, that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice does work the best out of all the pieces in Fantasia. You know the story, which comes from a ballad by Goethe. After a morning of conjuring, a sorcerer leaves his apprentice alone and gives him the chore of filling a cistern with water from the well. The apprentice dons the sorcerer’s robes and commands the broom to carry the water from the well. He then promptly falls asleep. When he awakes he finds the broom has continued to carry the water the whole while and the cistern is overflowing. Unfortunately, the apprentice doesn’t know the spell to stop the broom, so he picks up an axe to destroy the broom. But then, the original spell continues to work and all the little piece of broom grow into more brooms that keep on carrying more water. In the nick of time, the sorcerer returns to reverse the spell and dry up the shop.

Dukas’ music matches the magic, the joy and the tension of this story perfectly. It starts out with a incredibly slow statement of the melody. At each new twist of the story, this theme is picked up by a different instrument and sped up until by the time of the flooding, the cymbals are crashing like thunder and the strings are playing glissandos that evoke the roiling of the waters.

Dukas, though not a prolific composer, had a profound effect on 20th century music. He taught Ravel, De Falla, and Rodrigo. Their works all show traces of the highly imagistic and vivid writing of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And according to my research, Disney’s film was responsible for the reawakening of interest in this work. So like my Italian friend, Gianfranco says, whad ya gonna do?

Dukas’ Biography

Download MP3 or buy CD of Dukas: Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Grofé: Grand Canyon Suite

When compiling the list of pieces I used to listen to as a child, some subconscious part of me made me leave out The Grand Canyon Suite. “It’s not serious, or classical music,” I heard a voice inside saying. As a child, however, I often played the recording of it that belonged to my older brother, Bob, on the days when I’d sneak into his room.

The Grand Canyon Suite is a highly imagistic piece of music. Grofe tried to capture the majesty of the striated canyon as the light gradually reveals the dazzling colors at sunrise. In another section, he imitates the clopping of donkey hooves transporting tourists down into the canyon floor. Grofe then shamelessly uses the violins to imitate the bray of the asses as they lose their grip and then grind to a stubborn halt. You know how it goes, every filmmaker has used that technique in every documentary and cowboy western film. Still, I wonder, what lies behind my ignoring the piece.

Looking Grofe up in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, I find an entry for the composer. Well, if the musical Dons at Oxford thought him serious enough to include in their book, why should I turn my nose up at him? Also, while researching this piece, I learned that he was quite an accomplished musician, having orchestrated Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Grofe’s entry also says Grofe wrote The Grand Canyon Suite in 1931, which means he probably wasn’t the first composers to imitate animals. Let’s see: I think, Saint-Saens has braying assess in Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev, born just one year before Grofe, imitated a wolf, a duck, and a twittering bird in Peter and the Wolf. All of this occurred in the infant stages of film, and television and Walt Disney’s anthropomorphic animal documentaries were just a twinkling in a cartoonist’s eye. So it’s not really Grofe to blame for making this device hackneyed, it’s TV.

There must be more to my negative associations with this piece than just TV, and while thinking about my last couple entries, the answer suddenly popped out at me. Snobbism and ignorance. I mentioned earlier that the M* family, who influenced me in high school, weren’t really snobby people. Mind you, they could spot bad taste more quickly than anyone I’ve met. Yet, they did not look down their nose at the perpetrators of kitch. They usually just laughed at it or attributed it to greed.

In retrospect my actions become clear: in my desire to be “cultured” and an “intellectual” I divided the world into cultured and non-cultured, and labeled the one “good” and the other “bad.” Though my origin is definitely working class, I put on airs. Why? Why does anyone? To be liked? Respected? Popular? It’s now painfully clear that I drew the wrong conclusions about culture that the M* family exposed me to. What the harm? I guess for me the harm was missing out on quite enjoyable experiences that some people label “popular.”

Fortunately, life always gives you second chances when you make a mistake. While driving home from my daughter’s violin lesson when she was in her teens, the local public radio station played The Grand Canyon Suite. Instead of switching it off, I left it on for her to hear, so she could form her own opinion. I listened as if for the first time, and then I realized this piece was an old friend, and it was still fresh and vibrant for me. So here’s to Ferde Grofe and second chances.

Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

A few weeks ago, I wrote about having gone to see Fantasia for the first time in the fall of 1974.  Everyone on campus as the time looked forward to its re-release. Many friends talked about how great it would be to get high and go see it.

This reveals how drug use had changed between the 60s and 70s. Back in the 60s, when LSD and marijuana hit the scene, gurus like Timothy Leary claimed drugs helped break through the culturally- imposed barriers that stifled creativity. These barriers, Leary reasoned, turned us into automatons that could be told to go to church, fight wars, and be productive consumers. People took drugs to expand their minds and gain new insights into life.  If that’s true, it makes me wonder,  when you turn inward, where do the images and ideas you get come from?

Remember that people who were in their 20s during the 1960s had not grown up with television, and so their child-like sense of wonder probably had radically different roots than the next group of us baby boomers. My peers and I, on the other hand–born in the 50s–grew up watching cartoons on Saturday mornings and on the Walt Disney hour on Sunday evenings. Our sense of wonder focused on cuteness. When drugs were used to get back to that childish state, Fantasia was the perfect vehicle.

In my childhood, we religiously watched the Walt Disney Hour on Sunday evenings.  One clip that you would some times catch a glimpse of on the show was Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. That image of Mickey dressed in the star-studded robes of a magician, taken from the movie, had also become a kind of symbol. You could buy posters of it and even find three dimensional statues of it in “collectable” stores. It went from cute to kitsch.

Some people, though, feel the entire movie epitomizes kitsch. That’s one of the reasons Stravinsky hated Fantasia. Why can’t the music stand by itself? He felt, putting pictures to it created a mental crutch for people who don’t understand music and therefore could not approach it intellectually. That is kind of an elitist view.  Stravinsky I later learned got no royalties from Disney for the use of his score because of copyright issues, so he might have had an axe to grind.

My complaint about Fantasia goes back to this question: “who says the mental images evoked by the cartoonists are preferable to one’s own?” Oddly enough, Stravinsky’s own Rite of Spring, eventually became my second favorite piece by the composer, but the interpretation of it in the movie–darkly colored with dinosaurs and erupting volcanoes–to my mind at least was absolutely ghastly. That actually put me off from giving it the due it deserved. Still, when Fantasia was re-released in theatres when they were toddlers, I took my daughters to see it, and later bought them the videocassette.

Of course, Stravinsky didn’t say what he thought about music that intended to evoke mental images. Both Beethoven and Mahler imitate cuckoos in their Sixth and Firstsymphonies, respectively. Arthur Honegger wrote a piece called Pacific 231 that imitates a train. And Mozart’s father Leopold wrote a symphony with an irritating bird whistle in it. Think about the reverse situation, as well: you wouldn’t want to sit through most movies, documentaries, and other moving visual images without a musical sound track. The most abortive attempt I ever witnessed of putting music to visual images occurred in Paris. In the basement of the old Tuileries gallery, an entire room was dedicated to the display of a wrap-around series of tableaus that Monet had done of the water lilies on his pond at Giverny. Some composer had created a musical accompaniment, played on the organ, to help the listener appreciate the painting more, I guess. It was the most depressing music I ever heard and did not fit the beauty of the water lilies in the least.

I do feel, however, that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice does work the best out of all the pieces in Fantasia. You know the story, which comes from a ballad by Goethe. After a morning of conjuring, a sorcerer leaves his apprentice alone and gives him the chore of filling a cistern with water from the well. The apprentice dons the sorcerer’s robes and commands the broom to carry the water from the well. He then promptly falls asleep. When he awakes he finds the broom has continued to carry the water the whole while and the cistern is overflowing. Unfortunately, the apprentice doesn’t know the spell to stop the broom, so he picks up an axe to destroy the broom. But then, the original spell continues to work and all the little piece of broom grow into more brooms that keep on carrying more water. In the nick of time, the sorcerer returns to reverse the spell and dry up the shop.

Dukas’ music matches the magic, the joy and the tension of this story perfectly. It starts out with a incredibly slow statement of the melody. At each new twist of the story, this theme is picked up by a different instrument and sped up until by the time of the flooding, the cymbals are crashing like thunder and the strings are playing glissandos that evoke the roiling of the waters.

Dukas, though not a prolific composer, had a profound effect on 20th century music. He taught Ravel, De Falla, and Rodrigo. Thier their works all show traces of the highly imagistic and vivid writing of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And according to my research, Disney’s film was responsible for the reawakening of interest in this work. So like my Italian friend, Gianfranco says, whad ya gonna do?

Dukas’ Biography

Download MP3 or buy CD of Dukas: Sorcerer’s Apprentice

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