The idea behind what would become The Rite of Spring first materialized in Stravinsky’s mind in the spring of 1910, visualized as a “solemn pagan rite” designed to propitiate the Slavic god of the sun, Yarilo. At the time, the composer was busy working on his ballet "The Firebird” (to be premiered in the summer of the same year in Paris), but the scene of young girl performing sacrificial dance was strong enough that Stravinsky solicited help from Nicolas Roerich, a famous Russian symbolist painter, archaeologist and overall connoisseur of the ancient Slavic history (his paintings, set pieces and costume design photographs are featured on this page).
Having pitched the idea to Diaghilev of Les Ballets Russes while supervising production of The Firebird, Stravinsky began working on a scenario upon his return to Russia. A more definitive version of the script was produced under the supervision of Roerich while both men vacationed at Princess Tenisheva’s estate near Smolensk in the summer of 1911. The initial sketches for backdrops and costumes were produced by Roerich at the same location using the Princess’s substantial collection or Russian ethnic art as inspiration.
The composition of the score began in the late summer of 1911 when Stravinsky came back to his estate in Ustilug (Volyn Region of Ukraine) and continued in Clarens (Switzerland) where the microclimate was believed to accommodate a poor health of Stravinsky’s wife, Katherine. As a consequence of Diaghilev’s decision to reschedule production of the ballet to spring 1913 Stravinsky didn’t complete the full score until 8 March 1913, with some revisions to the Introduction of “The Sacrifice” part being added on March 29.
Contrary to the popular notion that the melodic material employed in The Rite of Spring draws on the traditions of Eastern European folk songs, the only actual source is an obscure Lithuanian tune borrowed for the Introduction to “The Adoration of the Earth”. The rest of the melodic patterns in The Rite of Spring are Stravinsky’s personal approximation of the folk idiom of his home country, rather than a conscious reliance on a particular collection. While melodic lines are uniformly diatonic and rather simple, the infamous complexity and modernity of the score is achieved via courageous manipulation of harmony (dominated by bitonal sonority) and extremely irregular rhythmic patterns achieved through tireless manipulation of note duration and incessant rearrangement of pitches and melodic cells within phrases. Tonality is very ambiguous throughout, complicated even further by frequent use of ostinatos built with discordant harmonic blocks. All of which constituted a highly unusual auditory experience for an audience in the early 1910s, which was more accustomed to the standard Classical and Romantic repertoire of the day.
For its first live iteration, this musical complexity was appropriately and fatefully paired with Nijinsky’s avant-garde choreography, which chose to emphasize ritualistic and symbolic connotations of the piece, as opposed to treating it as exotic pagan fantasia (something that later productions of The Rite of Spring in the form of ballet fully took advantage of). The outcome was a well-documented, scandalous premiere that took place on May 29 1913. The accounts of the event describe violent outbursts involving Parisian celebrities of the day, the audience’s loud ironic remarks and suggestions on plot development sustained throughout the entire performance, Nijinsky’s attempts at calming the audience by switching theatre lights on and off and dancers struggling with counting beats in a very complex set of rhythms. In retrospect it feels like a good portion of the audience, although perplexed by the nihilistic modernity of the piece, appreciated the challenge and courage of the musical experience. Nijinsky’s effort didn’t fare as successfully as music eventually did and have been largely forgotten until some very recent attempts at reviving the original choreography.
Indeed the The Rite of Spring’s popularity and eventual canonization as a symphonic repertoire staple was largely achieved through its concert performances, rather than its ballet productions. Perhaps Walt Disney’s animation film “Fantasia” (1941) was also instrumental in this regard at least for North American audience, a large portion of which encountered “The Dance of the Earth” for the first time via a “prehistoric” sequence in the animation film.
Although the score of The Rite of Spring underwent some revisions throughout 20th century they have been largely focused on simplifying or adjusting the instrumentation. The version of the piece that our audience will hear during the concert is Stravinsky’s own piano reduction for piano duet. Music historians believe that this arrangement was completed before the initial orchestration (most likely in 1912, published in 1913).
(French: Le Sacre du printemps, English: The Rite Of Spring)
Reduction for piano duet by the composer (published in 1913).
Part I: L'Adoration de la Terre (Adoration of the Earth)
1. Introduction | Introduction2. Les Augures printaniers | Augurs of Spring3. Jeu du rapt | Ritual of Abduction4. Rondes printanières | Spring Rounds5. Jeux des cités rivales | Ritual of the Rival Tribes6. Cortège du sage: Le Sage | Procession of the Sage 7. Danse de la terre | Dance of the Earth
Part II: Le Sacrifice (The Sacrifice)
1. Introduction | Introduction 2. Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes | Mystic Circles of the Young Girls3. Glorification de l'élue | Glorification of the Chosen One.4. Évocation des ancêtres | Evocation of the Ancestors5. Action rituelle des ancêtres | Ritual Action of the Ancestors6. Danse sacrale (L'Élue) | Sacrificial Dance
- Vladyslav Pronin -