The Rite of Spring
Related Artists/CompaniesIgor Stravinsky
About the Work
The Rite of Spring, the third and most revolutionary of the ballet scores Stravinsky composed for the legendary impresario Serge Diaghilev, was written between 1911 and 1913. The ballet's premiere was given on May 29 of the latter year at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky (who also danced in the performance) and décor by Nicholas Roerich (who helped with the scenario as well, and received the dedication of the score); Pierre Monteux conducted. The National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work were conducted by Howard Mitchell on March 29 and 30, 1966; the most recent ones, on January 8, 9 and 10, 1998, were conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
The score, as revised in 1947, calls for 2 piccolos, 3 flutes, 1 flute in G, 4 oboes, 2 English horns, 2 B-flat clarinets, piccolo clarinet in E-flat, 2 bass clarinets, 4 bassoons, 2 contrabassoons, 8 horns, small trumpet in D, 4 trumpets, bass trumpet, 3 trombones, 2 tenor tubas, 2 bass tubas, timpani, bass drum güero, cymbals, antique cymbals, gong, triangle, and strings. Duration, 35 minutes.
Stravinsky burst from obscurity to world fame literally overnight in June 1910, when Diaghilev introduced his first ballet, The Firebird. Both that work and Petrushka, which followed a year later, celebrate Russian tales and traditions, and incorporate actual folk tunes. The Rite of Spring also makes use of some folk material, but there is nothing else at all traditional in itâ€”nothing, surely, of the fairy-tale charm or alluring brightness of the two earlier ballet scores in this depiction of a prehistoric ritual in which a young woman is chosen by her tribe to dance herself to death in propitiation of the gods of spring. The premiere of this ballet in 1913 turned into a full-scale riot, and more than a few commentators over the years have referred to that event as the real beginning of the 20th century in music.
The work's Russian title, Vesna svyashchennaya, is translated literally as "The Coronation of Spring," and that sense is conveyed in the familiar French title Le Sacred Du printemps. In English, however, there is greater impact in the single syllable Rite, which connotes no gay or festive ceremony, but evokes the stark, chilling scenario of the work, which Stravinsky labeled further with the subtitle "Pictures of Pagan Russia" and whose title is rendered in German as Das Frühlingsopfer, "The Spring Sacrifice."
Stravinsky conceived this work almost immediately following the successful premiere of The Firebird; he set it aside for the composition of Petrushka, then resumed in the fall of 1911 and completed the score in the spring of 1912, though the orchestration was not finished until the following March, barely two months before the ballet's premiere. The premiere of The Rite of Spring as a concert work, given at the Casino de Paris on April 5, 1914, under Monteux, who had conducted the ballet the previous May, did not generate a riot or anything other than enthusiasm. As Stravinsky's longtime associate Robert Craft has recorded,
Stravinsky was acclaimed as no other living composer had ever been in the history of music, and the scandal of the first performance, the year before, was forgotten in triumph. Stravinsky was carried from the hall on the shoulders of the crowd.
While The Rite of Spring is seldom introduced without reference to the "scandal" of its 1913 premiere, the "scandal" was perhaps as much a manifestation of pre-World War I tensions as a reaction to the music or the staging. There were screams and catcalls which actually did drown out the huge orchestra at times. Diplomats and dignitatires who did not leave in outrage over the first few bars exchanged blows; it is said that duels were arranged and that there were "diplomatic consequences." But the resourceful musicologist Peter Eliot Stone has pointed out that the riot was not set off by the music alone, novel and inflammatory though it was at the time; in part, he observes, it was a reaction on the part of Frenchmen whose national sensibilities had been affronted by various other factors involved in the production.
Peter Stone's findings indicate that the Parisians had grown somewhat weary of the ostentatious Russianisms of Diaghilev's troupe, whose members by the time of this work's premiere had had to be warned, for their own safety, to wear Western clothes instead of their colorful Russian garb when they went about the streets. Apart from the issue of costume and exoticism, the theater itself in which the premiere took place was under attack. The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, a cherished landmark today, was brand-new at the time, and was resented by the French both for the "German crudities" of its architecture and for the management's favoring of German, Russian and Italian music over the domestic product.
Added to these factors was a strong loyalty to Michel Fokine, who had been Diaghilev's leading choreographer until about a year before the premiere of The Rite of Spring. Nijinsky, greatly admired as a dancer, was regarded as a bit of an upstart in the function of choreographer, and was further disliked for his "daring" treatments of Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun and Jeux. Moreover, articles on the new Stravinsky work had been appearing for months in advance of the premiere, describing scemes of mass rape, the sacrifice of a virgin, etc., subject matter that could be counted upon to inflame certain types before the fact.
There was also, to be sure, no shortage of shock value in the music itself when it was heard for the first time. The usually good-natured old Saint-Saëns stalked out muttering after the opening bars. Carl Van Vechten left a colorful report on the audience reaction from the viewpoint of one who was there and found himself involved:
The young man seated behind me in the box stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was laboring 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.
The work's two parts are of roughly equal length, and both are divided into specific scenes. Those in Part I, THE ADORATION OF THE EARTH , are: Introduction; Auguries of Springâ€”Dance of the Young Girls; Game of Abduction; Spring Rounds; Games of the Rival Tribes; Procession of the Sage; Adoration of the Earth (The Sage); Dance of the Earth.
Part II, THE SACRIFICE, comprises: Introduction (The Pagan Night); Mystic Circles of the Young Girls; Glorification of the Chosen One; Evocation of the Elders; Ritual Performance of the Elders; Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One).
While the ballet has been revived and rechoroegraphed from time to time, The Rite of Spring has really belonged to the orchestra, not to the world of dance, since that first concert performance in 1914. When Stravinsky revised the orchestration in 1947 it was definitely with the concert hall in mind, not the theater. In the 91 years since the music was first heard, new generations have arisen to whom the work is no longer revolutionary but is simply part of the "standard repertory." Many of todays' listeners were introduced to this music before they discovered Beethoven or Brahms, and responded to its vitality, its mystique and its powerful momentum rather than its novelty. The Rite of Spring may no longer set off riots, but it still packs quite a wallop, and there is still nothing quite like itâ€”despite the countless attempts at imitation. Stravinsky himself was perhaps more acutely aware of the work's uniqueness than anyone else. As Rollo H. Myers observed some fifty years ago, in his article on the composer in Grove V , "having achieved what he set out to do in the Rite, he wisely decided not to attempt anything further on these lines . . . ; from this point onwards he altered his course."