The Kennedy Center

The Rite of Spring

About the Work

Igor Stravinsky Composer: Igor Stravinsky
© Peter Laki

Arranged for two pianos by the composer

Stravinsky first published the score of The Rite of Spring in a version for piano four hands, which, not surprisingly, turned out to work much better on two pianos than on one. It is fascinating to hear the piano and the orchestral versions in close proximity; although one undoubtedly loses something by not hearing the myriad instrumental colors that form such an important part of this epochal masterpiece, this loss is compensated for by our experience of the incredible concentration displayed by two performers who must contend with what usually takes an entire orchestra to play.

      This was the version that Stravinsky played with Claude Debussy at a private party at the home of French critic Louis Laloy. As the critic later recalled in his memoirs:

      Debussy agreed to play the bass. Stravinsky asked if he could take his collar off. His sight was not improved by his glasses, and pointing his nose to the keyboard and sometimes humming a part that had been omitted from the arrangement, he led into a welter of sound the supple, agile hands of his friend. Debussy followed without a hitch and seemed to make light of the difficulty. When they had finished there was no question of embracing, nor even of compliments. We were dumbfounded, overwhelmed by this hurricane which had come from the depths of the ages and which had taken life by the roots.

      Debussy later said that the music of The Rite haunted him "like a beautiful nightmare."

      For many years, the four-hand arrangement was considered a mere piano reduction rather than a concert piece in its own right. This didn't change until 1967, when Michael Tilson Thomas and Ralph Grierson performed the piano version with Stravinsky's blessing (they also made an acclaimed recording a few years later.) Since then, piano duos have frequently included this daunting but extremely rewarding work in their repertoires.