Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
The Rite of Spring is a ballet and concert work by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. The music was composed for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes company. Vaslav Nijinsky created the original choreography, whilst stage designs and costumes were managed by Nicholas Roerich. Famously, The Rite of Spring is known for its tumultuous premiere, which saw audience members create a riot in the theatre. The avant-garde nature of the ballet, paired with Stravinsky’s modern approach to the music created quite the stir.
The ballet is described as “pictures of Pagan Russia in two parts”. The ballet depicts a range of primitive rituals that celebrate the arrival of spring. A young girl from a tribe is chosen as the sacrificial victim and must dance herself to death. The mixed reception of the ballet has meant that directors have taken on the challenge of the ballet to try and make it more accessible for audiences, however most have only run for short performances.
The music on its own has perhaps received more attention than the ballet itself. The concert suite sees the music from the ballet grouped together to give the audience the ‘full show’ experience. The Rite of Spring concert suite is considered to be one of the most influential scores of the 20th century.
Stravinsky’s music for The Rite of Spring contains a menagerie of novel features that were not particularly common even for that time. For instance, his experimentation in metre, rhythm and dissonance makes this particular score one of his standouts. The music is a challenge for any orchestra, yet it still remains one of the most recorded scores of all time. The music is split into two large sections, which are both full of smaller movements:
Part I – The Adoration of the Earth
- Augurs of Spring
- Ritual of Abduction
- Spring Rounds
- Ritual of the Rival Tribes
- Procession of the Sage: The Sage
- Dance of the Earth
Part II – The Sacrifice
- Mystic Circles of the Young Girls
- Glorification of the Chosen One
- Evocation of the Ancestors
- Ritual Action of the Ancestors
- Sacrificial Dance
Part I – The Adoration of the Earth
Before the curtain rises, an orchestral introduction resembles, according to Stravinsky, “a swarm of spring pipes.
Opening with a solemn solo bassoon that plays in an uncomfortably high register, the instrument becomes nearly unidentifiable. Over time other wind instruments enter, with the cor anglais and flutes shining through. The orchestra builds in dynamic, with piercing muted trumpets and winds piercing the sound wall. A repeat of the opening bassoon solo, now a semitone lower is heard before the introduction comes to a gentle, but mysterious close.
Augurs of Spring
The celebration of spring begins in the hills. An old woman enters and begins to foretell the future.
The boisterous first dance begins with the iconic stamping motif from the strings and horns. Stravinsky’s experimental use of metre and dissonance is really apparent in this movement. The stamping motif is disturbed as Stravinsky moves the accented beat around the bar. This creates a real uneasiness in the music. Between the stamps we hear rushing winds chasing the beat which gets pulled around the orchestra. The strings use pizzicato to shift timbres quickly.
The Ritual of Abduction
Young girls arrive from the river, in single file. They begin the “Dance of the Abduction”. The orchestra create a frantic atmosphere in The Ritual of Abduction.
All parts of the orchestra play frantic scalic passages, with the percussion accentuating. This movement has been described as “the most terrifying musical hunt.” The high flute trills lead into the next movement.
The young girls dance the Khorovod, the “Spring Rounds”.
The laborious theme of Spring Rounds comes as a quick relief after the last couple of movements that have been a full on sensory experience. After the lyrical first half of this movement, the orchestra explodes again into what has been described as “a ghastly caricature” of Part I’s main theme.
Ritual of the Rival Tribes
The people divide into two groups in opposition to each other, and begin the “Ritual of the Rival Tribes”.
Brass dominates the opening of Ritual of the Rival Tribes. Demonic trombones and brash horns create a dynamic atmosphere. The wind and string interlude is sweet and gentle until muted trumpets and horns enter once more with the main theme of this movement.
Procession of The Sage: The Sage
A holy procession leads to the entry of the wise elders, headed by the Sage who brings the games to a pause and blesses the earth.
The brass leads straight into this short movement that is grand in style and represents the entry of the Sage’s procession. The thudding percussion section keeps the procession marching before the Sage blesses the Earth.
Dance of the Earth
The people break into a passionate dance, sanctifying and becoming one with the earth.
Part I is brought to a close in a series of aggressive swells from the orchestra, loud offbeats and thunderous percussion. The music is brought to a sudden halt at the end of the movement, leaving you wondering what will happen next.
Part II – The Sacrifice
Rising cadences in the flutes and strings create a mysterious atmosphere as cascading muted trumpets pierce the mysterious veil. The intensity is held throughout the introduction with the movement ending with upper strings and flutes playing the opening and repetitive rising cadences.
Mystic Circles of the Young Girls
The young girls engage in mysterious games, walking in circles.
The mysterious atmosphere is kept through Mystic Circles, with the strings and winds leading on the melody. A loud repeated chord is heard, which signifies the call to order as the moment for choosing the sacrificial victim has arrived.
Glorification of the Chosen One
One of the young girls is selected by fate, being twice caught in the perpetual circle, and is honoured as the “Chosen One” with a martial dance.
This brief movement is chaotic, powerful and violent in its portrayal of the Chosen One being caught in the perpetual circle. Dialogues between the wind and brass create drama and tension, whilst the shrill upper strings drive the drama forward.
Evocation of the Ancestors
In a brief dance, the young girls invoke the ancestors.
This brief dance harks back to the opening stamping dance, although this time it is broken up by aggressive drum rolls.
Ritual Action of the Ancestors
The Chosen One is entrusted to the care of the old wise men.
Beginning quietly, Ritual Action of the Ancestors reimagines the Ancestors and their mannerisms. A lone cor anglais plays a repeating phrase before a low-pitched flute joins in with an opposing theme. There are a series of climaxes heard, but the music retreats again to the material heard at the opening of the movement.
The Chosen One dances to death in the presence of the old men, in the great “Sacrificial Dance”
The final movement shows the Chosen One dancing to death in front of the Ancestors. Starting out in 3/16, the rhythm is more disciplined than Part I’s Sacrificial Dance. Muted brass add to the repeating string motif, creating a dystopian sound world. The music is wild in places, however it is controlled by dynamic and more rhythmically-sound basslines.
The ending has come under quite a lot of scrutiny with critics complaining that the abrupt ending does not conclude this work properly. As the tension is built to the ultimate climax of the whole suite, a lone flute plays a sweet ascending scale before one final blast from the orchestra.
Full of thrilling twists and turns, Igor Stravinsky’s music for The Rite of Spring is some of the most ingenious writing of the 20th century. From experimental tonality, rhythms and use of extended techniques, Stravinsky’s music is still unchallenged today. The concert suite is performed regularly around the world, although you’ll only really see professional orchestras attempt it!
This blog is dedicated to Ben Evans.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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