The Kennedy Center

Le Sacre du printemps

About the Work

Igor Stravinsky Composer: Igor Stravinsky
© Peter Laki

It all began like just another show for Serge Diaghilev's Paris-based company, the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev's magic formula, the combination of virtuoso dancing with the exotic appeal of far-away Russia, had worked wonders with French audiences before; in addition, two previous productions, The Firebird and Petrushka, had revealed to the world the company's young star composer, Igor Stravinsky. But this time-maybe somewhat unexpectedly even for those involved-a few important lines were crossed, with implications that did not become clear until years later.

      Russian writers and artists at the beginning of the 20th century were endlessly fascinated by the Russia of pre-Christian times. Medieval literature and contemporary peasant folklore were thoroughly searched for clues about paganism, and several artists, including the poet Sergei Gorodetsky and the painter Nikolai Roerich, became experts on the subject. Stravinsky had set two poems by Gorodetsky in 1907-08, three years before the beginning of his collaboration with Roerich on what would become The Rite of Spring.

      Thus, paganism was "in," and the possibility that the ancient Russians may have engaged in human sacrifice captured the imaginations of many at the time. (Incidentally, this hypothesis was never proven, but the burning of straw effigies, documented in modern folklore, was seen as a vestige of sacrificial practices.) Therefore, the dream that Stravinsky told about in his autobiography was a very timely one indeed:

One day, when I was finishing the last pages of The Firebird in St. Petersburg, I had a fleeting vision which came to me as a complete surprise, my mind at the moment being full of other things. I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.

      As Richard Taruskin has shown in his monumental two-volume biography of Stravinsky, the composer provided the germinal idea for at least the last scene of the ballet, and Roerich, with his vast knowledge of ethnological and archeological writings, helped create an authentic scenario. It was to be a ballet "devoid of plot in the conventional sense, one that would not narrate its action but depict it pure, not represent it but present it....[It] would not tell a story of a pagan ritual; it would be that ritual." Stravinsky and Roerich decided that the "Great Sacrifice" should be preceded by a celebration of the Earth, with traditional ritual games re-enacted onstage and culminating in a wild stomping dance.

      In its final form, the scenario incorporates a number of allusions to ancient Russian folk rituals, and accordingly, the music relies heavily on ancient Russian folk songs, taken from published collections. This is important to emphasize because in later years, anxious to project a "cosmopolitan" image, Stravinsky went to great lengths to deny the presence of any original folk material in The Rite.

      The following summary of the action, apparently written by the composer himself, was published in the program for the Moscow concert premiere in 1914:

Scenes of pagan Russia, united inwardly by the mystery of the great upsurge of all the creative powers of Spring...

      Part I: The Kiss of the Earth. The celebrants of Spring are seated on hills. They blow dudki [reed pipes]. Youths learn the art of divination from an old woman who knows all the secrets of Nature. Young maidens, costumed and with painted faces, come from the river in single file. They dance the Spring Dance. This is followed by the Game of Abduction and the Spring Rounds, for which the youths divide into different tribes that attack each other. An opening is cleared for the Eldest and Wisest, who enters at the head of a religious procession. The games stop and the people wait, trembling, for the blessing of the earth. The Eldest makes a sign to kiss the earth and everyone dances, stomping the earth.

      Part II: The Great Sacrifice. Night. The maidens perform secret games and group themselves in circles. One of the maidens is chosen for the Sacrifice. Fate points to her twice: twice she is caught in one of the circles without an exit. The maidens dance a martial dance honoring the Chosen One. The Invocation of the Ancestors. The maidens bring the Chosen One to the Elders, and the Sacrificial Dance begins before the Eldest and Wisest.

     Part I begins with a bassoon solo written in the instrument's highest register that, with its unusual tone color, immediately creates a mysterious atmosphere. The melody itself is derived from a Lithuanian folksong, but Stravinsky had totally changed the character of the original. He was obviously less interested in literal fidelity to the source than in a creative transformation of his originals into something far more profound and powerful.

      The bassoon melody is answered by other woodwind instruments playing short and poignant themes. After a fortissimo climax, the bassoon solo returns, interrupted this time by some violin pizzicatos (plucked notes) that lead into the next section, "Auguries of Spring (Dances of the Young Girls)." This movement is based on a rhythmic ostinato (constantly recurring rhythmic pattern) consisting of equal eighth-notes in the violins; within the groups of four eighth-notes, however, the emphasis is constantly shifting. The result is a highly irregular and totally unpredictable rhythm, over which the winds introduce their mostly symmetrical, folksong-like melodies.

      The next section, "Game of Abduction," has a pentatonic theme (playable on the piano's black keys). The notes are all of equal length but their grouping is again irregular. "Spring Rounds" starts with another pentatonic melody played by the clarinets, followed by a slow, march-like section in which a string ostinato is set against a highly expressive melody played by four solo violas (we heard it earlier with the trumpets, but note how orchestration and tempo change a melody's character!). Piccolo and E-flat clarinet add their piercing and doleful counterpoint. The melody is repeated fortissimo by the entire orchestra, only to be interrupted by a high-pitched flute signal that announces a new tempo and an intensification of the dance. The slow clarinet melody that started the movement returns at the end.

      "Games of the Rival Clans" is based on a melody that is played alternately by different groups of instruments (such as violins as opposed to horns, for example). In the midst of these relatively quick-paced melodies, a slow and ponderous theme makes its unexpected appearance in the tenor and bass tubas. It is the theme of the Eldest and Wisest, who in the next section ("Procession of the Wise Elder") takes center stage as the entire orchestra adds various ornamental figures to the solemn and austere brass melody. After four mysterious and suspenseful measures ("Adoration of the Earth-The Wise Elder"), the "Dance of the Earth" begins. Over a relentless ostinato in the bass, the rest of the orchestra strikes repeated chords in irregular groupings, gradually raising the volume to a quite literally "earth-shattering" climax, at which point the music abruptly stops.

      Part II ("The Sacrifice"), like Part I, begins with a slow introduction. Against a tapestry of lush woodwind sonorities, a tenderly lyrical pentatonic theme emerges that bears a certain resemblance to the great Russian melodies of The Firebird and Petrushka. This is also the main melody of the next section, "Mystical Circles of the Young Girls," which starts with six solo violas. A new theme soon appears in the alto flute, repeated, in a quite unusual manner, in parallel sevenths. It is during this mystical slow movement that one of the girls is chosen for the sacrifice. Her selection is announced by 11 drumbeats, immediately followed by her glorification in a quick movement of great rhythmic complexity. In the "Evocation of the Ancestors," the entire wind section repeats two chords in the same rhythm, in a somewhat chorale-like fashion; the ancestors make their entrance with an eerie-sounding duo of the English horn and the alto flute to the soft rhythmic accompaniment of the strings and percussion. Musically and dramatically, this is the preparation for the grand finale, the "Sacrificial Dance," whose wild accents surpass in boldness everything heard before. The irresistible energy of this movement never lets up until the quite unexpected ending.

THE PARIS PREMIERE of the Rite of Spring, on May 29, 1913, went down in history as one of the greatest scandals ever to have erupted over a new piece of music. The performance was nearly drowned out by shouted insults, catcalls, slaps in the face, and a general pandemonium. (A detailed description of this remarkable evening may be found in Thomas F. Kelly's excellent book First Nights.) It is unclear how much of the uproar was due to the music, and how much to Nijinsky's choreography. How many people in the audience reacted to the musical and artistic revolution manifest in the work? And how many were simply being manipulated and swept away in the universal brouhaha? We will never know. Yet in this ballet the sounds of a brute force attacked the calm, apparently untroubled prosperity of the Parisian Belle Époque like an army of barbarians. A year later, that Belle Époque was shattered forever by the cannons of World War I.

      After the end of the war, The Rite of Spring quickly became established in the West as a modern classic-a work whose time had indeed come. (In fact, its triumph had begun before the outbreak of the war, in April 1914, with the Paris concert premiere led by Pierre Monteux, who had also conducted the work at the ballet.) No composer has been able to avoid coming to terms with The Rite, one way or another, ever since. Yet Russia for a long time failed to appreciate this profoundly Russian work. Indeed, the work's vehement rejection by Russian critics precipitated the final break between Stravinsky and his native country. While Stravinsky became, in Taruskin's words, "the uncrowned king of French music," "as a ‘Russian composer' [he] was finished."