The Rite of Spring is undoubtedly the preeminent landmark of twentieth century music. In many ways a manifesto work, it simultaneously ushered in contemporary music and ruthlessly flung aside the dying aesthetics of Romanticism. This was done in a manner that was as startling for its sureness and maturity of execution (Stravinsky was 30) as for its breathtaking originality. Few composers of the century have escaped this work\'s influence -- indeed, no single work so profoundly affected music\'s course in the twentieth century.At 92 years of age, The Rite still sounds fresh, and quite modern.
As he was completing The Firebird in 1910, Stravinsky had a vision that became the basis for The Rite\'s plot: a depiction of ancient tribal rituals that culminate in a chosen victim dancing herself to death to propitiate the god of Spring. The ballet was set aside for the composition of Petrushka (1911), but resumed in 1912. The orchestra required is one of the largest ever called for: quintuple woodwinds and brass, eight horns (two doubling Wagner tubas), strings, and percussion. The percussion section might seem small, but the entire orchestra is often treated as an extension of it.
The Rite was premiered on May 29, 1913, by Sergei Diaghilev\'s Ballet Russes with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky. The events of that evening form the most celebrated scandal in musical history. Stravinsky recalled that the first measures elicited laughter and catcalls but that this rudeness was nothing compared to the storm that broke when the ballet proper got underway with \"a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down,\" as he put it. The audience demonstrated so vehemently that it was impossible for the dancers to hear the music, requiring Nijinsky to scream the musical beats from the wings.
Distinguished people, including the Austrian ambassador, burst into laughter; a lady slapped the face of a man who was hissing; the Princess of Pourtales loudly exclaimed that \"this horrible din\" was a personal insult; and one man shouted, \"Shut up, you aristocratic bitches!\" at some of the most elegant ladies in Paris. Despite efforts by Maruice Ravel and others to calm tempers, scuffles broke out between opposing camps. Meanwhile, Pierre Monteaux calmly conducted the performance to the end.
Critics were not kind either. Pierre Lalo wrote: \"The cult of the wrong note has never been practiced with such zeal and persistence.\" The dissonance level in The Rite is quite high, the likes of which had never been heard before the first performance. Coupled with the deliberately awkward choreography, the music\'s effect on the audience that night is understandable. Remember that Debussy was then considered avant-garde, and that the music of Mahler, Tchaikovsky and even Brahms was fairly recent.
The greatest innovation of The Rite lies in its elevation of rhythm to a position of importance equal to melody and harmony. The metrical changes in this score are constant and often harrowing for both conductor and orchestra. The final Sacrificial Dance contains some of the most rhythmically complex music ever written; its explosive convulsions mirror the dance to the death of the chosen victim.
Dr. Eric Kujawsky