Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring: Pictures of Pagan Russia (Le Sacre du Printemps)

by Max Derrickson

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) 

The Rite of Spring: Pictures of Pagan Russia (Le Sacre du Printemps)

Igor Fyoderovich Stravinsky was one of a rare breed of composers who created a piece of music that stopped the musical world and turned it on its ear. Beethoven and Wagner are among the others who also hold this claim. But there is something so singularly disarming, new, and different about “The Rite of Spring” that it twisted the arm of Western music into vastly new directions.

[. . .]

Even with a tutelage as impressive as Rimsky-Korsakov’s, Stravinsky had his own genius to offer. After hearing some of his early works, the mighty Serge Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes in Paris, sought out the young Stravinsky for commissions—and the profits that they might procure. For the Ballets Russes, Stravinsky first wrote the immensely successful “The Firebird” in 1910. It was followed in 1911 by “Petrouchka,” another landmark in both music and ballet.

The premiere of “The Rite of Spring” at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées on the night of May 29, 1913 sent shock waves around the world. Many conflicting accounts of that evening made their way through the newswires. In 1913, Parisian listeners were still adjusting to the music of the Impressionists, like Debussy’s “Prelude to ‘The Afternoon of a Faun,’” when upon their ears was thrust Stravinsky’s attack of modernity. Riots erupted in the theater; audience members, enraptured or enraged, bludgeoned each other on the head; rotted fruits were hurled upon the stage. The uproar was so deafening that the dancers could not hear the music. This was awful, barbaric music, a bold new creation that had burst forth upon the Shining Shore, a terrible mistake, a fiasco, sure to ruin the Ballets Russes.…Ah, but for the beauty of a moment like this in French history!

Differing accounts and misrepresentations aside, “The Rite of Spring” was a piece of music with which to be reckoned.
[. . .]
What follows is not a development of themes, but crashing, repetitive clusters of chords with syncopated accents. The listener is assaulted by ferocity—the gross distortion of tonality, the massive orchestration, and, most prominently, the unabating syncopation.

How could this be a ballet? Who could possibly dance it? Jean Cocteau, who wrote about the premiere, recounted that the audience was as stunned by what it saw as by what it heard. In fact, Stravinsky intended the music to be independent of the dance onstage, and the dance was to be thoroughly modern—with stomping—and far from beautiful. Today the ballet is performed relatively infrequently, but the music remains a pinnacle, or at least a landmark, of Western music.

In creating their story of pagan ritual and sacrifice in ancientRussia, Stravinsky and the Russian Primitivist archeologist and artist Nicolas Roerich crafted what they considered the first “modern” ballet. The sections are:

The Adoration of the Earth –
Introduction, The Augurs of Spring (Dances of the Adolescents), Ritual of Abduction, Spring Rounds, Ritual of the Rival Tribe, Procession of the Sage, The Kiss of the Earth (the Sage), The Dance of the Earth,

The Sacrifice –
Introduction, Mystic Circles of the Adolescents, Glorification of the Chosen One, Evocation of the Ancestors, Ritual Action of the Ancestors, Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One)

The dance depicts stomping to the rhythm of the earth, the trance-like evocation of spirits, and thought giving way to primal body and rhythm.
[. . .]
Only Stravinsky could make us want to abandon our “civilized” selves to such primitive instinct.