Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)

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           It’s somewhat fun to look back at the styles and fashions that shocked our ancestors, smugly reveling in our own sophistication and advanced thinking.    Yet, it must be said that almost a century on, the musical impact of Stravinsky’s epochal ballet, Le Sacre du printemps, still has the power, if not to shock, at least to affect audiences in powerful ways.  It is the third and final ballet from Stravinsky’s early musical maturity—the others being The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911)—all three were commissioned by Sergey Diaghilev for his famous Ballets Russes.  The latter was the most influential dance company in the world, the cream of Russia’s dance community, and which was active for decades in Europe, most notably in Paris and Monte Carlo.  Under the artistic leadership of Diaghilev, this company was the cutting edge, so to speak, of contemporary dance, and responsible for the creation of artistic works whose influence continues unabated today.

           Diaghilev’s genius for innovation naturally led him to the young Stravinsky, who had been a protégé of the famous Rimsky-Korsakov, master teacher, composer of operas, and one of the most adroit orchestrators in musical history.   The latter is key to understanding much of the musical style of Stravinsky’s three ballets, for Rimsky-Korsakov’s sparkling evocation of Russian picturesque images through challenging and imaginative scoring for the orchestra leads directly from the older composer to his student.  Stravinsky’s first two ballets for the company were “smash” hits, and so naturally Diaghilev was receptive to Stravinsky’s ideas for a ballet that was based upon what archaeologist and folklorist, Nikolai Roerich, thought to be authentic fertility rites of ancient Russia.  A so-called “primitivism” was of interest to artists in many fields as the Post-Romantic era ground to a close, in preparation for the Modernism of the twentieth century.   It should therefore not be surprising that an enterprising young composer with the ambition and imagination of Stravinsky should create a musical style unlike anything heard before in the ballet pits of France.

           What the audience heard that night in May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris was a triumph of daring musical innovation--a masterpiece of rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic originality.   And it was not always pretty.   The rhythms were thumping, insistent, and not common, at all.   Unexpected accents, irregular and constantly changing metres, and displaced accents gave a kind of rhythmic “vertigo” to Parisian ballet audiences used to refined, predictable, and elegant dances from centuries of tradition.   The melodies did not partake of the traditional scales that had formed the melodies of European music, and were played in unusual ways by the instruments—ultra high, or in odd combinations, for example.  The same could be said for Stravinsky’s new, daring harmonies—including the use of dissonance apparently for its own sake.   In other words, for its very appropriate primitivism.  Both dancers and musicians found the score almost beyond their powers of execution—it still is a technical challenge to today’s highly trained artists.

            Well, Parisians are passionate about their art, and they had an immediate reaction to the music, as well as the “sexually suggestive” and “crude” choreography.  The riot at the première is now legendary:  catcalls, whistles, fistfights in the aisles, with order barely restored by the arrival of police.   It must be said, that in today’s somewhat staid concert world, it’s rather nice to reflect about an audience that simply cared that much about high art.  Well, it was a ground- breaking night, and many of the fundamental concepts of concert music were never the same thereafter.   But it is important to also observe that most composers did not go on to compose works in the style of Le Sacre du printemps, including Stravinsky, himself.  But, the innovations wrought by him were part of a vanguard of musical change that was reflected in the transformations in all of art after the cataclysm of social change that was World War I.

            The ballet consists of fourteen numbers, or dances, divided into two parts, the first part centering around various aspects of the annual life of the tribe, and the second focusing on rituals leading up to the human sacrifice of  “The Chosen One.”  Noteworthy events to listen for include the famous (very high and tricky) bassoon solo at the very opening; the irregular (and famous) accents in the following dance, “The Dance of the Adolescents;” the unusual woodwind combinations in the “Round Dance;” the general barbarism and virtuosity required of the orchestra in the “Dance of the Earth;” the dense, ghost-like harmonies of the introduction to the second part; and the alternation between steady, almost monotonous rhythms and the confusing metre changes that occur in the “Glorification of the Chosen One.”  The last movement, “Sacrificial Dance,” is in many ways a recap of all of these marvelous sounds, and reminds us of why some historians—with only small exaggeration—posit the beginning of twentieth-century music in this stunning ballet.

            Today, when one visits the serene island cemetery, San Michele, in Venice, where both Diaghilev and Stravinsky are buried, only a few yards from each other, it is far in time and distance from the youth of these two masters in Russia.  I have always found it deeply poignant to see the faded ballet slippers and spent votive candles left on their modest markers by generations of dancers and musicians who have made the pilgrimage in homage.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan