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100 Years Of Stravinsky's Seminal Masterpiece "The Rite Of Spring "

   A century ago today ,  Igor Stravinsky's revolutionary  ballet score  Le Sacre Du Printemps (the Rite of Spring ) was given its world  premiere by  Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo ,  and as they say, the rest is history .  This seminal work  ushered in the modern age of music,  and  classical music would never be the same . 

    Although it is now usually  performed as  as a purely orchestral work ,  Le Sacre du Printemps was originally conceived as a ballet ,albeit one unlike any  ballet which had  come before it , and the legendary dancer/choreographer  Vaslav Nijinsky was responsible for its then wildy  unconventional choreography .  Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971 ) was a young , up and coming  expatriate  Russian composer  who had written two successful  ballet scores , The Firebird , based on  Russian fairy tales , and Petrushka , a whimsical tale of  puppets which come to life at a country fair in Russia .  The renowned  Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev had  given the gifted young composer a  chance and taken him under his tiutelage .

    Collaborating with the Russian  folklorist  and historian Nicholas Roerich ,  Stravinsky conceived of a  ballet  which would  depict the  strange pagan  rites of the  Russians in ancient times  in which a  young virgin  would be sacrificed  to propitiate  spring   by dancing herself  until she died of exhaustion .   In place of the elegant choreography  of  traditional 19th century  ballet  there was  an attempt to recreate the  wild pagan dances of the primitive Slavic trubes  who were the ancestors of today;s Russians .

     This attempt , plus Stravinsky's  jagged and wildly cacophonous music  caused  a near riot  at  the premiere exactly 100 years ago .  Le Sacre was unlike anything fashionable Parisian ballet audiences in Paris or elsewhere  had ever  experienced before , and many in the audience  began to make  a  commotion which actually  drowned out  the  already  extremely loud music  at times  !   The conductor was the  great French maestro Pierre Monteux (1875-1964 )  , a close friend and trusted collaborator with the composer , and  the unprecedented complexisty , wild rhythmic irregularity and jaggedness of the music required  an enormous amount of rehearsal time for both the orchestra and the dancers . 

     According to all reports , Monteux remained calm throughout  the chaos  and  kept the orchestra   going while the audienced whistled and jeered the weird  primitive choreography  of Nijiinsky .  Later performances  by the company at the theater  went without  a hitch though .

     The Rite began to be  performed more often  in concert halls by  symphony orchestras all over Europe and America by many of  the world's leading conductors ,including   Monteux ,and the composer himself ,  and although audiences initially found the music  shockingly  discordant  and  weird ,  Le Sacre has become one of the most frequently performed  orchestral works of the 20th century and is still  popular .  

     There have been  who knows how many recordings ,  by the composer,  Monteux,  Leonard Bernstein , Pierre Boulez ,  Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, Igor Markevitch , Ernest Ansermet (another close friend and collaborator of Stravinsky ) ,  Herbert von Karajan , Erich Leinsdorf , Charles Dutoit  and  so many other renowned  maestros .  Stravinsky, Boulez , Bernstein  and some others have made  more than one recording of it  over the years .

     The Rite calls for an enormous orchestra  ,  including  unusually large  woodwind, brass and percusiion sections ,  and includes such unusual instruments as  an alto flute , a special  low-pitcned  flute ,  not one but two contra bassoons , eight horns ,  piccolo trumpet  ,two tubas ,  and a  wide variety of percussion instruments . 

     The ballet is divided into two parts of equal length , the  "Adoration of the Earth ", and "The Sacrifice ".  In the first part , the pagan Slavic tribes  have gathered to celebrate the beginning of Spring ,  and  wise tribal elders supervise the  rites .  There are ritual abductions of girls , round dances ,  and solemn  processions .  The second part opens with an eerie  evocation of the night , and  a  young girl is chosen as a ritual sacrifice to the Slavic gods  when day breaks .  She  begins a  wild, orgiastic dance , and  dances until she literally drops dead !  (There is no  historical evidence that  such a ritual sacrifice actually happened among the ancestors of the Russian, though ).

    Stravinsky's music  is not actually atonal in the  Schoenbergian sense , but   breaks completely  traditional harmony , and features juxtaposiitions of  different  chords  which  do not conform to what  audiences had come to expect  in the  19th century .  There are eovocations of   old Russian folk music  , and several actual quotes . 

     But  Stravinsky's use of rhythm  is wildly innovative ; instead of the  simple ,square and  symmetrical  phrasing  to which audiences were accustomed , the composer  invented wildy irregular assymetrical  rhythmic patterns , with the time signature sometimes changing  with every measure .  Instead of bars constructed with the usual 2,3 or 4  beats oer measure ,  there are measures with 5,7, and even 11 beats , constantly  shifting  .  This was extremely difficult for the orchestral musicians  when the work was new , but  they have since  become accustomed to  it and many later  composers  have  created works of at least as much rhthmical complexity, if not more .

     After The Rite , Stravinsky  explored many different styles of  composition ,  and  became on of the leading exponents of what is caled "Neo-classicism" , or  20th century music which  makes use of  the techniques and style of 18th century music while  remaining  modern , and in his later years  he  began  use 12-tone Schoenbergian techniques while always remaining himself  . Stravinsky was something of a chameleon as a composer ,  constantly changing  his  music while  preserving his own distinctive voice . But he never seems to have written anything as  earth-shaking as  "Le Sacre Du Printemps ". 

     I 1924 , a wag in Boston wrote an  anonymous piece of doggerel  about the  wild and  clangorously prmitive  ballet score after a perforance by the Boston symphony orchestra :  

    "Who wrote this fiendish Rite of Spring , what right had he to write this thing ,  with its crash, crash , cling clang  bing, bang bing ?

      And then to call it Rite of Spring ,  the season when  on joyous wing  ,the birds melodious carols sing and harmony's in everything !

     He who could write the Rite of Spring,  if I be right, by  rights should swing ! "








Posted: May 29 2013, 01:28 PM by the horn | with no comments
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