The Rite of Spring

Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (1911-1913)

Columbia's Online Reserves Recording 1. or Recording 2.

Igor Stravinsky's ballet Le Sacre du Printemps known in English as The Rite of Spring was a sensation from the moment it first appeared on stage. The unrelentingly percussive and dissonant music of Stravinsky combined with Vaslav Nijinsky's rule-breaking choreography, Nicholas Roerich's remarkably evocative sets and costumes and the atmosphere of Paris in the years leading to the First World War led to a riot of proportions unheard of in music before or since. The noise in the theater was said to be so loud that the dancers were unable to hear the music played by the enormous orchestra and instead were forced to rely on Nijinsky's shouting the count from the wings of the theater; Stravinsky had to be escorted from the hall wiith a police escort.
What was it about this music that caused such an uproar? While it was likely the result of a claque of Stravinsky's enemies (the second performance went off without a hitch), it could equally be a result at the sheer visceral nature of the score: its vulgar primitivism, its unrelenting rhythmic hammering and the freeflowing sexuality of the music and dance. The Rite of Spring was an exploration of nature, subtitled "Scenes from Pagan Russia" that did not hide behind Victorian niceities: physical nature and human nature were laid bare. Musical conventions were turned on their head, from the superposition of two chords not often played simultaneously in the tableaux known as Augurs of Spring to the unpredictable accents of this repeated chord. (track 2 beginning). Stravinsky's intention was to celebrate a ritual, the annual renewal of spring through the sacrifice of a virgin who was meant to dance herself to death. He sought not to illustrate the pleasant arrival of spring: the trite images of the lovely Month of May and buds opening but rather a more elemental spring: that of glaciers calving and buds struggling forth from the hardened soil.
Stravinsky's music is filled with snippets of Russian folksong filtered through his own brilliant ears. Some is from previously published collections, others were collected by Stravinsky or remembered from his childhood and still others were entirely invented. The ballet uses these source melodies as raw material, tearing off tiny figures, perhaps even three notes, to use as ostinatos (repeating series of chords or notes) and patterns or as an environment for rhythm. Such treatment is even a folk derived notion. For instance let's say we had a passage of music:
Stravinsky might fixate upon four notes:
and repeat these endlessly with variations:
and so forth. This idea of a flexible musical object lies at the heart of Stravinsky's technique.
For a new listener a good way to think about Stravinsky's technique on both the larger scale and the smaller scale is like the technique of montage in film. For instance, if I were going to shoot a scene describing a briilliant car chase. I may have four different angles that I would move between: the car speeding down the road (A); the scared passenger (B); the pursuit vehicle (C); and astonished bystanders (D). In a film to heighten the emotion and revel in the excitement of the chase, I would cut between these various views. One editing could be:
and so forth. So too is montage used in Stravinsky's music but instead of scenes of film we are working with sharply defined sound elements.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Synopsis of the Ballet:

Part I: The Adoration of the Earth
We hear what are ostensibly Shepherds' pipes and the curtain rises to reveal a village celebration in an ancient Slavonic village. Village scenes play out: among them a witch seeing the future, an abduction leading to marriage, dances and games. The oldest and wisest members of the village arrive in great procession. They begin the solemn ritual of the "Adoration of the Earth" during which the Sage kisses the newly flowering earth.

Part II: The Sacrifice
We again hear a mysterious introduction and see a dance of virgins. One is chosen to be sacrificed to the Earth and glorified by the village. In the presence of village elders and dressed in bearskin she dances herself to death in order to bring forth the flowering of spring.

Dancers at the Premiere

Track Listings with Selected Listening Charts
First Part: The Adoration of the Earth
Track 1: Introduction (2:57)
Track 2: Les Augures Printanieres (3:03)
Track 3: Jeu de Rapt (1:17)
Track 4: Rondes Printanieres (3:05)
Track 5: Jeux des Cites Rivales (1:59)
Track 6: Cortege du Sage(0:43)
Track 7: Adoration de la Terre (Le Sage) (0:25)
Track 8: Danse de la Terre (1:14)
Second Part: The Sacrifice
Track 9: Introduction (3:41)
Track 10: Cercles Mysterieux des Adolescents (2:51)
Track 11: Glorification de l'Elue (1:35)
Track 12: Evocation des Ancetres (0:42)
Track 13: Action Rituelle des Ancetres (3:19)
Track 14: Dance Sacrake (L'Elue) (4:37)
First Part: The Adoration of the Earth
The Augurs of Spring; Dances of the Young Girls
Ritual of Abduction
Spring Rounds
Ritual of the Rival Tribes
Procession of the Sage
The Sage
Dance of the Earth
Second Part: The Sacrifice
Mystic Circles of the Young Girls
Glorification of the Chosen One
Evocation of the Ancestors
Ritual Action of the Ancestors
Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One)

Listening Chart:
Based on Stravinsky recording
Part One: Introduction
0:00 Bassoon Fanfare, followed by descending chords in clarinets and English horn phrase. A somewhat-askew primeval pastoral scene is evoked.
0:59 Pizzicatos in strings lead to further activity, more frenzied.
1:34 Further activity. Flutes introduce new chordal motif that alternates with solos for Bassoon and English Horn.
1:56 Activity in alto flute and oboe fanfares leads to full blossoming of orchestra.
2:26 Return of Bassoon fanfare
2:37 Foreshadowing of material from "The Augurs of Spring" in Pizzicato violins

Part One: Augurs of Spring
0:00 Polytonal chord accented irregularly (a); a contrasting phrase in english horn, bassoon and pizzicato cello, (b) followed by those chords again.
0:44 Various fragments derived from Russian folksong are overlayed on rhythms: Bassoons begin, later trombones and then oboes add their voice.
1:11 Interruption in rhythm; b material returns.
1:34 More fragments derived from Russian folksong appear over a repeated pattern: first in horns, then flute, then oboes and trumpets.
2:04 Full orchestra enters over continuing ostinato. A new "folksong" joins in counterpoint to the others in longer note values akin to a "Chorale" in trumpets and cellos.
2:30 A further episode: more and more layers are added to the texture culminating in...

Part One: Ritual of Abduction
0:00 Threatening chord; bass drum strikes; a fast and virtuosic trumpet phrase, "sirens" in the French Horns. These elements alternate freely.
0:32 Orchestra presents another fragment derived from Russian folksong homorhythmically.
0:40 Alternation of the four elements.
0:53 Triumphant asymetrical phrases in high winds and brass alternate with bass drum strikes. Then triumphant asymetrical phrase in strings alternates with similar strikes.
1:10 A pounding cadential chord followed by a trill in flutes and the mood changes.

Part One: Spring Rounds
0:00 As the trill continues, clarinets play another derived melody. Transition into first dance.
0:22 An hypnotic ostinato develops in strings over which various fragments will sound.
0:48 Entrance of "chorale" from "Augers of Spring" in horns and strings as ostinato continues.
1:44 A cymbal crash; full orchestra takes up "chorale"
2:22 A much faster section reminiscent of the "Abduction" music.
2:40 The trills return and along with them the opening material of "Spring Rounds"

The Joffrey Ballet's reconstruction of the original performance

There are numerous websites devoted to different aspects of this ballet and Stravinsky's life. I have highlighted only a few here.

NPR has put together a brief program talking about the premiere as part of their Milestones of the Millenium series. You get to hear recordings of Stravinsky himself telling the story of the Rite of Spring.

Roerich's sets and costumes can be seen at this fine page from Northwestern University.

You can read Stravinsky's last interview with the New York Review of Books.

All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.