by Walter Simmons
Few works are as clearly—almost mythically—identified with a musical era as is Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet The Rite of Spring with the dawn of the “modern” period. As time has passed, and our understanding of the music of the first two decades of this century has deepened, the work appears less to have sprung without antecedents. This, however, does not diminish the significance of the impact made by the work on the music world at the time—especially on the music of other composers.
Stravinsky, not yet thirty years old, had collaborated successfully in 1910 on the ballet The Firebird with the dance impresario Sergei Diaghilev, a pioneer in the modern dance movement. The composer wrote:
The idea of The Rite of Spring came to me while I was still composing The Firebird. I had dreamed a scene of pagan ritual in which a chosen sacrificial virgin dances herself to death.
Stravinsky discussed this vision as the subject of a ballet with Diaghilev and developed a scenario with costume and set designer Nicolas Roerich. The choreography was undertaken by Vaslav Nijinsky. Stravinsky began composing the music in Russia during the summer of 1911 and completed the orchestration in Switzerland during March of 1913.
The ballet was presented two months later at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, under the direction of Pierre Monteux. The performance provoked one of the most celebrated scandals in music history. Carl Van Vechten, who attended the première, described it thus:
A certain part of the audience, thrilled by what it considered to be a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art … began very soon after the rise of the curtain to whistle, to make catcalls, and to offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed. Others of us who liked the music and felt that the principles of free speech were at stake bellowed defiance. The orchestra played on unheard, except occasionally when a slight lull occurred. The figures on the stage danced in time to music that they had to imagine they heard, and beautifully out of rhythm with the uproar in the auditorium…. One young man … behind me … stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was laboring, thanks to the potent force of the music, betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time.
Fist fights broke out; duels were arranged; many luminaries of the Parisian musical scene were present and uttered partisan statements that have been widely quoted ever since. Stravinsky himself reported:
I have never again been that angry. The music was so familiar to me: I loved it and I could not understand why people who had not yet heard it wanted to protest in advance.
Yet shortly after the première, The Rite was performed again, as a concert piece minus the choreography, and it was very favorably received. Since then it has usually been performed this way, and Stravinsky himself stated his preference for it as a concert work. Today The Rite of Spring is one of the most popular and widely performed works in the orchestral repertoire.
What was it about The Rite of Spring that aroused such controversy, and why does the work hold such a significant position in contemporary music? It did pioneer many novel techniques, such as the use of melodies in different keys at the same time (polytonality) and the juxtaposition of several meters simultaneously (polyrhythm and polymeter)—techniques later adopted by many other composers. The work calls for an exceptionally large orchestra, including a number of unusual instruments. In addition, it uses conventional instruments in some unconventional ways, as in the haunting solo with which the work opens, featuring the bassoon in an uncharacteristically high register. But orchestral effects and technical innovations are rarely sufficient in themselves to merit controversy or enduring interest.
Perhaps the key to the significance of The Rite of Spring lies in the words of a critic who commented after the English première, later in 1913, “A crowd of savages … might have produced such noises.”
European music by the beginning of the twentieth century had brought the romantic style to a point of great complexity and refinement, capable of embodying the most rarefied and profound aesthetic and sensual nuances. This complexity and refinement, however, was wholly rooted in the Western European notion of appropriate, civilized artistic concerns, and as such was filtered through accepted philosophical, intellectual, or poetic imagery.
The Rite of Spring was a shattering assault on this sensibility on two levels: For one, it exalted harsh, dissonant harmony as a sonic experience in its own right. Extreme dissonance was not new in 1913: other composers had explored comparable harmonic qualities. But these composers worked within a carefully graded system, in which dissonance represented extremes of emotion and was always resolved to a lesser level of harmonic tension. For Stravinsky, dissonance did not necessarily represent extreme emotion; it simply existed for its own value as a sonority. Even this was not a true innovation: Debussy had explored the free use of dissonance for two decades, but his music was realized in passive, atmospheric textures that were easier to accept. In contrast, Stravinsky’s dissonance was expressed in violent, animalistic outbursts that suggested the unleashing of forces that Freud termed the Id: the basic, universal, primitive drives of sex and violence. In this sense the effect of The Rite of Spring on cultivated European society was similar to the impact of rock ‘n’ roll on white American adult society during the mid 1950s.
The second aspect of the significance of The Rite of Spring was its elevation of the rhythmic element to prime importance. Up to this time, Western European classical music had concentrated primarily on harmony, melody, and counterpoint as the main areas for development. Rhythm served a subsidiary function at best and often was treated in the most rudimentary way by composers who otherwise applied the most sophisticated techniques. In The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky deliberately simplified the melodic material, bringing the rhythmic element to the foreground and presenting it with a direct, physical immediacy that concealed an unprecedented complexity of technical manipulation. The listener who hears The Rite for the first time is far more likely to come away remembering thrilling moments of rhythmic excitement than a particular melodic theme. But this very rhythmic excitement further contributed to the impression of a wild, primitive orgy.
These two milestones—the violent emancipation of dissonance and the elevation of the rhythmic element—had immediate and far-reaching consequences. Young composers throughout the classical music world were galvanized by the impact of The Rite, and neo-primitivist imitations and derivations sprang up almost instantly. Stravinsky himself soon abandoned this direction, but the course of musical history was irrevocably altered; nearly all subsequent composers have, in one way or another, absorbed these features into their musical language.
The innovations of The Rite of Spring were really only new in relation to the society in which it appeared. Its roots lie in folk ritual, and its reliance on the hypnotic, trance-inducing qualities of rhythmic and melodic repetition derive clearly from this tradition. The Rite is a ritual dance to spring, the symbol of rebirth and life. Stravinsky suggested his source of inspiration when he fondly recalled “the violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking. That was the most wonderful event every year of my childhood.”