Tuesday, April 21, 2009
The Rite of Spring
Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps) stands as one of the most provocative and emotional pieces of symphonic literature of the 20th century. It's subtitled Scenes from Pagan Russia and was originally performed as a ballet depicting a pastoral landscape of dancers dressed in traditional attire, and choreographed within a ritualistic and nativistic series of scenes that tell the story of the sacrifice to the God of spring. The piece dates from the eve of WWI, 1913. Stravinsky was living in Paris and working for Serge Diaghilev, who had commissioned him to compose a series of ballets (The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring). Soon after the war broke out, Stravinsky fled to Switzerland, and then to America.
The story goes that on the opening night in Paris, a riot broke out in the historic Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The music was so shocking and provocative that the patrons of the theater revolted against it - securing Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring to this day with a kind of honor only shared previously by Beethoven's Eroica. Part of the listeners reaction though was caused by the musical dissonance Stravinsky used, and the use of polyrhythms and polytonality; the music itself is viscerally shocking. He also wrote for certain instruments like the bassoon and french horn in an unfamiliar way, stretching them to perform at the extremes of their ability.
The whole composition is worth watching. Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.
I think Stravinsky could have as easily named the piece A Winters Lament, because of that very dissonance. He orchestrates the fight between geological forces of darkness and light, of winter and spring, in a way that makes you feel it in your gut. Pagan ritual was designed to aid on the side of spring, in order to help shepherd the world out of dormancy, but that struggle is something that even we in the modern world can understand. We don't sacrifice anymore, which is a good thing, but we can still resonate with the seasonal dissonance that Stravinsky was attempting to express in music, the pain and joy we all feel when the world experiences another rebirth. It is the struggle that makes us human, vulnerable, and interdependent.