Friday, May 14, 2010

The Rite of Spring

We will soon approach the centennial of three of the great ballets of the 20th C., music and dance that changed everything followed. It will soon be the centennial of the three ballets of Igor Stravinsky that changed all of modern music: Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913).

The latter, which was premiered in 1913, was titled in Russian by the composer Vesna svyashchennaya, or "Holy Spring." The French title, Le Sacre du Printemps, was given to the ballet during production, and is the title by which the work is known outside of Russia: The Rite of Spring.

The premiere of the work, as performed by Ballet Russe, was greeted with derision and hatred, and was a notorious fiasco—probably as much for Nijinsky's provocative choreography and costuming as for the music. Stravinsky experienced this early pinnacle of his career in his early thirties—"such as composers rarely enjoy," he said many years later.

Few works of modern music, either "pure" music or for the ballet have had more myths built around them. Legends and stories, misunderstanding and deliberate misreadings, anecdotes and myths—all have revolved around this score since its original performance. Even the composer made myths and stories around his work.

As music historian Richard Taruskin has written:

In 1920 he [Stravinsky] told a reporter that the ballet had been originally conceived as a piece of pure, plotless instrumental music ("une oeuvre archetectonique et non anecdotique"). In 1931 he told his first authorized biographer that the opening bassoon melody was the only quoted folk-song in the score. In 1959 he asserted, through his musical and literary assistant Robert Craft, that the work was wholly without the tradition, the product of intuition alone. "I heard and I wrote what I heard," he declared. "I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed." These allegations and famous words have passed into the enduring folklore of with-century music.

In fact, however, the ballet's scenario reflects its oft-suppressed subtitle, "Scenes of Pagan Russia," and except for the human sacrifice at the ballet's conclusion is highly detailed and ethnographically accurate. The composer planned the work in extensive detail in collaboration with Russian archaeologist and painter Nikolai Roerich, to whom the score is dedicated. The music quotes a minimum of nine identifiable Russian folk-songs, all of them selected with the same eye towards accurate ethnographic detail as went into the scenario.

Did Stravinsky lie about The Rite, or rather make myths, because of prideful vanity or faulty memory? No, I don't believe so. Along with the centennial of the premieres of his great Russian ballets, we need to remember that the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution comes soon after. As Taruskin reminds us:

Having renounced Russia in the wake of the revolution and the Bolshevik coup d'etat, Stravinsky wished frantically not only to attach himself to the Western musical mainstream, but to become its leader. He zealously distanced himself from the parochial lore of his birthright and embraced an aggressively cosmopolitan ideology. Hence his insistence that his music—all his music—was "pure," abstract, (neo)classical, unbeholden to any specific time or place for its inspiration. And hence the legend of The Rite as a violent rupture with the past, when all the while it was an exuberantly maximalist celebration of two pasts—the remote past of its [pagan] subject and more recent past of its [Modernist] style.

Stravinsky largely succeeded in remaking himself as a cosmopolitan master of the new style of music. His influence was universal, and after he emigrated to the United States and began to teach composition, he was the influential teacher of two generations of Modern composers. He remains one of the most highly-regarded of Modern composers, and his place is assured in music history as an innovator, inventor, and stylist.

Stravinsky was also a master orchestrator, with a gifted ear for tone color and subtle orchestral shadings. If you listen carefully to The Rite's notorious pounding rhythm sections—shocking to early listeners in their lack of tuneful melodies—you can hear how each apparently identical repetition of a phrase or theme is in fact subtly reorchestrated each time: there are in fact rather few exact repetitions anywhere in the score, the orchestration is always changing.

Stravinsky's orchestral voice is always recognizable to my ear. I can always tell it's one of his pieces, just from the orchestration. Stravinsky is part of that lineage of composers, many of them great orchestrators with signature tone-color styles, that ranges from France (Debussy, Messiaen, etc.) to Russia (Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Shostakovich) to Japan (Takemitsu, Mayuzumi, etc.). There is a lineage of influence here, of ideas going back and forth across these borders, or composers learning from each other, and of musical idioms creating one of the great threads of the modern international style.

The Rite of Spring has a historical context for its inception and creation. Between the first Russian Revolution in 1905 and the Bolshevik takeover in 1917, Russia went through a period of powerful nationalistic fervor, during which pagan antiquity was very popular, and was reconstructed and reimagined both ethnographically and creatively. All three of Stravinsky's great early ballets—Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring—were part of this period of foment. Each of them is based in its own way on Russian folklore, myth, legend, and ethnography. Each of these three ballets is uniquely Russian, a modern expression of a deep nationalistic past.

But this wasn't an altogether bright period, between the Revolutions. There were the horrors of World War I. There was a growing conceptual divide, imagined or not, between the citified and educated intelligentsia (kul'tura) and the vaster "elemental spontaneity" (stikhiya) of the folk peasantry. Poverty and work became serious daily issues in both city and countryside. There was a great exodus of Russian Jews, a second diaspora that had begun during the last years of the Czarist rule, and continued far into the Revolutionary years. Many Russian Jews were forced to leave their villages, and fled to Western Europe, to Palestine, and to the United States. The mood of Russia was turbulent, frightened, determined to be proud, yet afraid of its own shadow.

A Russian-born acquaintance of mine, many years ago, gave me an insight into Russian psychology that I have never forgotten. He reminded me that the Rus have been a conquered and tragically enslaved people for over seven centuries. The very word "Rus" originally meant "slave" in Old Norse, the language of the Viking conquerors—those how left their blond genes among the folk of city and steppe alike; those who founded the silver-trading city of Kiev. So, the Russians have been conquered or resisting conquerors for centuries. As my Russkii friend put it, "No matter how good things seem to be, right here and now, we never forget that the wolves are always chasing the sleigh." The wolves never stop chasing the sleigh, no matter how far behind they fall, temporarily; they are still chasing the sleigh, even now.

The Russians of a century past felt the wolves to be very close behind the sleigh indeed.

The Rite is still a shocking piece of music and dance. It still has the power to slap us around, activate some very old ancestral memories that live deep in our bones and blood, and make us remember how thin our proud veneer of civilization truly is. The Rite retains its potency, its ability to shock us, to make us remember our darker halves. It is an archetypal, profoundly mythic work; it's no wonder so myths and legends have grown up around the work itself, from the spillover of psyche into creativity that The Rite represents.

The Rite of Spring will soon be a century old. It reminds us that there are even older, more pagan, aspects to ourselves, than perhaps we are comfortable about admitting to ourselves. In viewing and listening to this work again, as it approaches its centennial, it's startling how fresh and new it still feels to us.

Here is a complete performance of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring as conducted for the dance by the great composer and conductor of 20th Century music, Pierre Boulez.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve always hated the term ‘Modern’. I mean what were they thinking? A title like that is bound to become dated. And now, inevitably, we have postmodernism and where from there I wouldn’t like to think. The thing is, you’re right, ‘modern’ music began with Stravinsky. Why Charles Ives doesn’t get the credit I do not know. But there you go.

The sad thing about Stravinsky is that he is really only well known for those three ballets even though he kept going for another sixty years. I have a fair bit of Stravinsky but he’s not a composer I think of very often. Maybe I’ll have a Stravinsky Day tomorrow.

The BBC did a dramatisation a while back of the first performance of The Rite of Spring which included a complete performance in the original period attire. As theatre is wasn’t especially exciting but as a bit of history it was fascinating.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

That sounds like an interesting recreation. I'm sure it is far less scandalous now than it was then.

I agree about Ives, too. In fact, in many ways I think we still have not caught up with Ives, or even learned to fully comprehend or appreciate his ideas.

I like a lot of other Stravinsky, actually. He did a setting for tenor and chamber orchestra of "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," the Dylan Thomas poem, that we studied in music school, and it was so brilliant I've never forgotten it.

I also like his experiments with, for example, octatonic scales, and other unusual scales and polychords.

10:42 PM  
Blogger Seamus Sweeney said...

Just came across this - the centenary is just over a year away, is anything specific planned in terms of re enactment etc?

11:55 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Seamus. I'm not sure exactly. I'm sure several different celebrations will happen, no doubt in Paris as well as in the US. I expect the piece to be featured in performance. Michael Tilson Thomas who leads the San Francisco Symphony will probably do something, as he has been a champion of this music; a couple of years ago they released a large CD set of Stravinksy, including the Rite and the full Firebird ballet scores.

12:27 AM  

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