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Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971)


The Rite of Spring
Part One: The Adoration of the Earth
Introduction - Auguries of Spring - Mock Abduction - Spring Rounds - Games of Rival Tribes - Procession of the Elder - Adoration of the Earth - Dance of the Earth
Part Two: The Sacrifice
Introduction - Mystical Circle of Adolescents - Glorification of the Chosen Victim - Summoning of the Ancestors - Ritual of the Ancestors - Sacrificial Dance

The Rite of Spring is the third of the great ballets Stravinsky wrote for Diaghilev's Russian Ballet company. It was composed during 1911/1913 and first performed in Paris in May 1913.

Composition and Scenario
The first idea for The Rite of Spring came to Stravinsky in 1910, when he was finishing The Firebird. "I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring."

He did not start serious work until late in 1911, when Petrushka had been successfully launched. His collaborator was Nicholas Roerich, an artist and designer who was also an archaeologist of some distinction. Roerich explained the scenario to Diaghilev as follows ... "The first part transports us to the foot of a sacred hill, in a lush plain, where Slavonic tribes are gathered together to celebrate the spring rites. In this scene there is an old witch who predicts the future; a marriage by capture; round dances. Then follows the most solemn moment. The wise elder is brought from the village to imprint his sacred kiss on the new-flowering earth. During this rite, the crowd is seized with mystic terror .... After this rush of terrestrial joy, the second scene sets a celestial mystery before us. Young virgins dance in circles on the sacred hill amid enchanted rocks; then they choose the victim they intend to honour. In a moment she will dance her last dance before the ancients clad in bear skins. Then the greybeards dedicate the victim to the god Yarilo."

Stravinsky planned to finish the work in 1912, but Diaghilev, who had chosen his principal dancer Nijinsky as choreographer, delayed the premiere until the following year. Stravinsky accordingly slowed his working pace, and completed the score in March 1913.

First Performance
The first performance was the culmination of over 120 rehearsals for the dancers, who were greatly taxed by the complex steps and rhythms they had to learn. Stravinsky later described Nijinsky's choreography as "overburdened, complicated and confused", so their difficulty is perhaps understandable! The notorious riot which accompanied the premiere came as quite a surprise, since the dress rehearsal - at which some public and critics were present - had been without incident. Eyewitnesses all agree that the word "riot" is no exaggeration; there was much jeering and catcalls, many people walked out, supporters and opponents were fighting in the hall, and the orchestra was for the most part completely inaudible above the racket from the audience. The dancers were trembling and almost in tears, while Nijinsky and Stravinsky were standing on chairs in the wings, yelling instructions at the dancers. By the conclusion everyone was totally exhausted.

The scandal of the first night was not repeated at subsequent performances that season, though the work was savaged by the critics in London later that summer (1913) - "It has no relation to music at all as most of us understand the word" - "Such stuff should be played on primeval instruments, or better, not played at all" - "A crowd of savages might have produced such noises". However, its deserved fame in the concert hall began with successful concert performances in Paris in 1914 and London in 1921.

The Music
The score is one of the landmarks in the history of music. It is conceived on a grand scale, and the concept is carried through with originality, logic and energy. It was years ahead of its time in many ways - its fragmentation of melodies, its complex rhythms, its dense polyphonic orchestration, and its innovative use of percussion instruments as a quite independent section of the orchestra. But all these innovations are in service to the musical idea, which is dominated by an astonishing and unprecedented raw energy.

A detailed description of each part is probably not appropriate, and would distract from listening to the music. But a few points to listen out for can be mentioned. The introduction, which starts with a famously high bassoon solo, is scored mostly for the woodwind - all twenty players of them! Auguries of Spring begins with stamping string chords, and notice the heavy tread of the slower Spring Rounds. Games of Rival Tribes goes straight into Procession of the Elder, whose cortege is announced by the tubas. An abrupt stop; four quiet bars as the elder kisses the earth, and then the delirious Dance of the Earth completes the first part.

The introduction to the second part is sinister, but the atmosphere clears a little for the Mysterious Circle of Adolescents. Once the victim is chosen, eleven massive chords lead into the Glorification section - a wild passage with almost no melody, but really complicated rhythms. The ancestors are evoked, and their ritual is slow with sinuous, twining tunes on cor anglais and alto flute. This eventually yields to the final Sacrificial Dance, jagged, violent and abrupt, in which melody and harmony disappear under the irregular battering rhythms.

Many years later, Stravinsky was asked what he loved most about Russia. He replied "The violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking." This, surely, is the driving emotion behind The Rite of Spring.

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