Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

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Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)
The Rite of Spring (1913)

Lakeview Orchestra will perform Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on Tuesday, March 19th at 7:30PM at the Athenaeum Theatre.

In complete contrast to tonight’s two previous works, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring does not fit the traditional, semi-predictable mold of melodic and harmonic development. The work demands from its audience an entirely new way of listening to music. There is a requirement of auditory finesse with no shortage of mental agility to understand the piece. As strong as this statement is, these words are not the invention of the program annotator; rather, they are the collected voice of musicologists and composers for more than a century. Simply put, what Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was to the 19th century, so Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was to the 20th: the single most influential piece of music composed in its time, the game changer, the one work of its century no later composer could avoid.

It is with some fortune that Stravinsky was able to compose the Rite of Spring, as it was not evident from his early life that he would become a composer – or even make a living in the field of music. Raised in a musical family in Saint Petersburg, Imperial Russia, Stravinsky began taking piano lessons at the age of 10. He was a competent, though not gifted, pianist. However, in 1899, 17-year-old Stravinsky decided that he wanted to be a composer. His father, Fyodor Stravinsky (1843 – 1902), who was one of the outstanding operatic bass baritones of his time, thought himself capable of recognizing musical talent and professed to see no such worthy talent in his son. Young Igor was informed that he would study law and go on to a career in the Russian civil service. So it was that in 1901 Stravinsky enrolled at the Saint Petersburg Imperial University.

Coincidently, among his classmates was Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov, the youngest son of the great Russian nationalist composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908). With Vladimir’s encouragement, Stravinsky sucked up his courage and arranged an audience with the czar of Russian music to obtain an appraisal of his musical composition abilities. Stravinsky described what happened: “I told him of my ambition to become a composer and asked his advice. He asked me to play some of my first attempts. Alas! The way he received them was far from what I had hoped. He told me that before anything else, I must continue my studies in harmony and counterpoint with one or other of his pupils in order to acquire complete mastery in the schooling of craftsmanship. But at the same time he strongly advised me not to enter the conservatory. As I was twenty, he feared that I might find myself backward in comparison with my contemporaries, and that this might discourage me. He further considered it necessary that my work should be systematically supervised, and that that could only be achieved by private lessons. He finished by adding that I could always go to him for advice, and that he was quite willing to take me in hand once I had acquired the necessary foundation.” In fact, what Rimsky-Korsakov told Stravinsky was: You’re too old, and you’re not good enough to get into the Conservatory, nor are you worthy of my time. If you study with one of my students, maybe, one day, you will be good enough to study with me. Meanwhile, you’re a friend of my son, and the son of the great Fyodor Stravinsky, so I’ll be happy to offer you my advice should you seek it out.

For all intents and purposes, Stravinsky did not push composition any further. Yet domestic circumstances conspired in his favor, when his father died just four months after his interview with Rimsky-Korsakov. With this sad event, Stravinsky became unshackled from paternal influence and revisited his dream of becoming a composer, following Rimsky-Korsakov’s previous advice to the letter. He studied with several of Rimsky-Korsakov’s students from 1902 to 1905. At the same time, Stravinsky injected himself into the concert world in which Rimsky-Korsakov lived. He would attend rehearsals, concerts, and evening musicals with the old man himself. Good to his word, Rimsky-Korsakov took Stravinsky on as a private student in 1905. They worked together for three years, during which Stravinsky continued his astonishingly rapid development as a composer. When Rimsky-Korsakov died on June 8, 1908, Stravinsky was devastated. But, as sometime happens when a father figure (such as Stravinsky’s own biological father) is no longer around to express disapproval, Rimsky-Korsakov’s death liberated Stravinsky to become the composer he wanted to be.

As a side note, we must be eternally grateful that Stravinsky did not continue in the path of law; if he had, we would not have his music. Additionally, Stravinsky was incredibly lucky to have the opportunities he earned to escape the Russian civil service. Less than a decade later, the Russia Stravinsky and the world he knew ceased to exist. His country transformed into an even more extreme autocratic kleptocracy than Imperial Russia, all under with the guise of personal liberation and a utopian society. The enormity of wicked actions carried out by the Russian (USSR) state organs during Stravinsky’s life is, today, simply astonishing. If Stravinsky had served in the civil service, he would have had a~25% chance of being executed. Had he served as a government official, he would have had a ~50% chance of being executed. And had he had the distinction of serving as the head of the NKVD (precursor to the KGB – the organization that mentored and fostered current Russian autocratic kleptocrat Vladimir Putin) between 1934 and 1953, he would have had a 100% chance of being executed. Rates of executions in Russia varied depending on your occupation, but no one was immune – even those with seemingly innocuous occupations such as nurse, secretary, or composer. The purpose of such unpredictable brutality was to instill fear in the people and thus better control the populace. Much of the art produced in the USSR reflects this fear. Too much information? Perhaps. Relevant to understanding 20th century Russian artists? Absolutely!

With Stravinsky’s musical mentor now gone, he felt able to explore compositional ideas that were unorthodox for the time not only in the music itself, but also in the thematic content. He therefore traveled throughout Europe to hear and see firsthand want other contemporary composers were writing and how he might be able to emulate others’ success – but in a totally new compositional style. The origin of the Rite of Spring is not completely known, but in Stravinsky’s own words, he laid the foundation for a ballet that was intended to represent pagan Russia and to be unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of spring. “The piece has no plot, but the choreographic succession is as follows:

First Part: The Kiss of the Earth. The spring celebration. It takes place in the hills. The pipers and young men tell fortunes. The old woman enters. She knows the mystery of nature and how to predict the future. Young girls with painted faces come in from the river in single file. Games start. The spring Khorovod (mock abduction of the bride). The people divide into two groups, opposing each other. The holy procession of the wise old men. The oldest and wisest interrupts the spring games, which come to a stop. The people pause trembling before the great action. The old men bless the spring earth. The kiss of the earth. The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it.

Second Part: The Great Sacrifice. At night the virgins hold mysterious games, walking in circles. One of the virgins is consecrated as the victim and is twice pointed to by fate, being caught twice in the perpetual circle. The virgins honor her, the chosen one, with a marital dance. They invoke the ancestors and entrust the chosen one to the old wise men. She sanctifies herself in the presence of the old men in the great holy dance, the great sacrifice.” It is, in the words of musicologist Joseph Kerman, “Dubious anthropology but effective theater.”

The premiere of the Rite of Spring (French: Le Sacre du printemps) took place in Paris at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on May 29, 1913. No previous work had been met with such strong emotion from the audience – emotion that ultimately morphed into outward hostility. The music was something completely new, and a large fraction of the audience simply was so conditioned to expect a certain style that they protested and yelled their disapproval. Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921), France’s most popular living composer at the time, was dismayed at what he heard, yelling, “Merde!” and storming out of the theater. On the flip side, many in the audience cheered with excitement for this new type of music. Chants of, “Shut up, you bitches from the 16th! Listen to the music!” bellowed throughout the hall from concertgoers in favor of the music. (“The 16th” referred to the 16th arrondissement of Paris, a wealthy, conservative district in Paris).

Music critic Henri Quittard’s assessment of the work appeared in Le Figaro on May 31, 1913, two days after the premiere: “Here is a strange spectacle, of a laborious and puerile barbarity, which the audience of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées received without respect. And we are sorry to see an artist such as M. Stravinsky involve himself in this disconcerting adventure, from whom Music, after The Firebird or Petrushka, could have expected further beautiful works. . . . Can M. Stravinsky imagine that a melody, because it is doubled a second higher or lower for fifty measures—or both at once—will gain a decisive and eloquent intensity? It seems so since it is so, and since the novelties contained in the score of Le Sacre du printemps are normally of this order. And since no one has the right to suspect the sincerity of an artist—especially when he has already proven that he is one—what is left to do? Give up trying to understand it, and deplore such a strange aberration….  Certainly the history of music is full of anecdotes where the ignorance of critics shines forth when they were unable to recognize creative genius when it appeared. Is the future saving up a triumphant revenge for new music as M. Stravinsky seems to understand it today? That is its own secret. But, to tell the truth, I doubt that our disgrace is very near.”

Quittard was wise to hedge his bets. The Rite of Spring eventually marked a paradigm shift in the way we view music, rhythm, and melody – a shift no future composer could avoid. With all the originality Stravinsky poured into the piece, the music was eventually separated as a true concert piece and not simply as a concert work for ballet, eventually becoming one of the most performed works of the 20th century.

Lakeview Orchestra will perform Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on March 19th, 2019: Learn More or Get Tickets

Program Notes by Luke Smith.

Luke Smith