Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Posted on September 2, 2012


The music loving people visiting the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on the day of 29 May 1913 were clearly not prepared for the perceptual experiences brought about by that particular evening. It was the premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes which took the audience by surprise with its intensive, complicated rhythms, strange tonality, melodic fragments collated apparently randomly and unexpected dissonant chords falling out of the blue. The ballet had put on stage a subject inspired by pagan Russian rituals, which was considered scandalous in a society which regarded itself being of a higher morality. And, on the top of all these there was the avant-garde choreography devised by Vaslav Nijinsky, containing abstract representations of primitive eroticism, lacking the smooth, sweet, amorous movements of most ballet productions of the time. The consequence was one of the most famous scandals of the history of art, when intervention by the police and theatre management were necessary as the performance split the audience in two fighting groups, shouting at each other and to the orchestra, some out of anger, and others of exaltation.

The composition is built upon a skeleton of asymmetric rhythms characteristic to Russian folk music, complex rhythmic elements of various durations. It was innovative and primitive in the same time, giving a markedly irregular overall impression. The changing rhythms are played out by percussion, string and wind instruments, recorded on the score using a variability of time signatures never seen before.

After a start by a bassoon solo with its sound stretched to the upper extreme range of the instrument, the introduction sounds like a cavalcade of musical elements based on traditional, folk-like harmonies as well as melodies distorted by dissonant notes and unusual progressions. With the increasing number of overlapping melodies the music becomes almost chaotic until it comes to a break, which introduces the first part of the composition, The Adoration of the Earth.

The first part depicts the preparation for the new season and creation of new life. Groups of young men and women pour to the stage celebrating, dancing in permanently rearranging patterns. An old woman is foretelling the arrival of the Spring, there is an atmosphere of great promise and anticipation (Augurs of Spring). The music is almost entirely reduced to a dissonant chord – a bi-tonal chord combining E major with E flat dominant seventh – played out repetitively along the asymmetric rhythm, trying to simulate what pre-historic Russian music may have sounded like. In continuation music becomes very dynamic, energetic (Ritual of Abduction). After the initial dominance of short melodies played by single solo instruments there is a tendency for the music to become stronger and louder by the addition of more instruments. Different combinations of instruments produce a multitude of fragments with different tone colours. As the dancers continue organising and reorganising themselves, contrasting elements both in music and dance become increasingly obvious – strong, primitive rhythms and raw loud sounds are alternating with soft melodies, triadic harmonies are disturbed by dissonant chords, while a mixture of joyful seduction and competition is represented by the dancers (Spring Rounds). There follows a moment of serenity with slow, deep, solemn melodies, when the rhythmic structure becomes more simple, the melodies are played by low register wind and string instruments and the movements on the stage are more synchronised. Then gradually we see the dancers divided into two opponent groups fighting with each other (Ritual of the Rival Tribes), the music is intense and fluctuating with large groups of strings and wind instruments playing repetitive ascending and descending melody lines. The resolution comes with the introduction of the Sage (Procession of the Sage), which unifies the dancers in movements of trance-like exaltation around him (Dance of the Earth). The sounds of the orchestra become raw and dissonant, rhythms are vigorous and irregular, with a final tendency of quick organisation, concluding abruptly in a single, strong, diatonic chord.

The second part of the ballet – The Sacrifice – is more homogenous in its overall structure, rhythms and melodies are generally more settled. From the first moments of the introduction repetition of a small number of musical elements is used, played by different instrument in their different variants, transpositions and tone colours, creating a hypnotising effect, thus preparing the ritual of the sacrifice. This is embedded in a texture of ostinato figures played by bass instruments as well as floating thrills by flutes and clarinets. The dissonant chords played by muted brass instruments and violins are soft and less conspicuous at the beginning, but are efficient in sustaining a level of tension and expectation (Mystic Circles of the Young Girls). After the meditative character of the first two sections the dramatic aspect of music and dance sharply increases (Glorification of the Chosen One), when one of the girls is selected for sacrifice. This section is dominated by loud, frenetic percussion and strong, offbeat dissonant chords hammered out by the strings and brass instruments creating a primal sound effect. In the following two sections (Evocation of the Ancestors and the Ritual Action of the Ancestors) the music is characterised by fluctuations in its intensity, quiet moments with mesmerising melodies played by solo instruments (mainly clarinet, oboe and bassoon), alternating with intensive bursts of harsh chords seemingly played out by the entire orchestra. The rhythm here is more repetitive, continuous, fitting the synchronised ritualistic dance of all the other dancers around the chosen girl.

The final section (Sacrificial Dance) reaches the maximum of emotional temperature by a brilliant synthesis of all the ingenious musical elements heard earlier, providing a fascinating, multilayered network of sounds – asymmetric rhythm, ostinato background, intermittent use of full range percussion, dissonant “primal” chords, seductive melodies. Also, the choreography is crystallised into the passionate dance of self-sacrifice of the chosen one. The overall intensity of music and dance is sharply spiralling towards the maximum point, providing a breath-taking aesthetic experience.

The Rite of Spring [online]. Wikipedia website. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rite_of_Spring, [Accessed 29 August 2012]

Smirnov, Dmitri [online]. The Rhythmical Aspect of the “Sacrificial Dance” by Igor Stravinsky Musical Pointers website. Available from http://www.musicalpointers.co.uk/articles/generaltopics/Stravinsky_SacrificialDance.htm [Accessed on 29 August 2012]

Posted in: Part 2