Blesok no. 82, January-February, 2012
Waiting for the Spring
– a view of “Rite to the Spring” by Igor Stravinsky –
Igor Stravinsky is one of the real epochal music innovators. No other composer of the XX century showed such a penetrating and omnipresent influence, none dominated with his art in the way in which Stravinsky ruled in the course of his seventy-year long music career. Apart from the purely technical aspects, such as the rhythm and harmony, the most significant feature of Stravinsky’s style is its changeability. Starting with the spirit of the late Russian nationalism and ending his career with a thorny individual language, filtered through the twenty-tone principle of expressionism, he accepted many aesthetic directions in the course of his development, always maintaining his recognisable, essential identity.
Stravinsky went up from obscurity to the world of glory literally over night, in June 1910 when Diaghilev presented his first ballet, “The Firebird”. This, and “Petrushka”, which appeared one year later, glorify the Russian stories and traditions, including the folk melodies. In Stravinsky’s third ballet, “Rite to the Spring”, there are also folk materials used. These three early works of Stravinsky define and even create the modernist style, and establish the young Stravinsky as a pre-eminent composer of the century.
Although the three ballets were written in a short time and they all used folklore elements, nothing is traditional at all in “Rite to the Spring” and it has nothing of the magic charm and attractive light of the previous two ballets; this is rather a description of a prehistoric ritual, where a young woman is selected by her tribe to dance to death to please the gods of spring.
The opening night of this ballet in 1913 turned into a complete rebellion, and many people called this event “the real start of the XX century music”.
There is listening manual in the subtitle: Pictures from Pagan Russia. The piece opens with a fagot, playing in a register much higher than the standard scope, and in the course of 30 minutes it transforms into a barbaric and pagan ritual sacrifice. The music is sharp, dissonant, heavy, there is a huge percussion section hitting and crushing in primitive rhythms, and the provocative choreography of Nijinsky, mildly said, made the audience at the opening evening upset. Despite the fierce yells and comments by the audience, despite the fact that Stravinsky himself had left the hall, Pierre Monteux and his orchestra bravely played the piece until its end.
Stravinsky gave the following description of his inspiration for this piece: “I had a fleeting vision that came as a complete surprise… I my imagination I saw a holy pagan ritual: wise chiefs, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dances herself to death. They sacrifice her for the pleasure of the god of spring.”
The first part, “Adoration of the Earth” opens with young men and women in separate groups. Their surrounding is primitive and dominated by the dark forces of nature. At first, the dance is simple, but it slowly changes to more and more aggressive and wild movements. The young men subdue the women and take them out of the stage. There is a dispute until the wise old man calms them down. After a dazzling silence, the men throw themselves in adoration; they get up again and start with an even wilder dance.
The second part, “The Exalted Sacrifice” starts with the women, gathered around a fire. One of them will be selected to be sacrificed for the earth. After the mystic dance, the Selected one stands alone and calm in the middle of the stage, and the young tribe members gather around her and dance in a “crescendo or brutal excitement”. Finally, the Selected one joins them and the dance becomes more and more aggressive until it culminates, and the selected girl falls exhausted, dying. The men then take her to the holy rock and put her with her face down. The ritual is finished.
This piece is one of the biggest leaps forward, not only in the history of music but also in the history of art.
The shock of the new was soon overcome and the piece was warmly accepted. There were more and more performances after the infamous opening night, and in the 1920es it was already performed in the USA. In the 1940es, this piece obtained its permanent place in pop culture, when Walt Disney used part of it for his soundtrack of “Fantasy”. Today, “Rite to the Spring” is already a classic, but it still reaches out.
It is a shocking piece and still a challenge when it sounds, but it does not confuse, it rather engages. The unregulated rhythms, the instruments that go to extremes of their possibilities, but also the patterns that we recognize, by measuring, contrast, fascinating harmonies, continuity – all of these are the basic principles of what makes a music piece function, and they are all included. This also shows the genius of Stravinsky and opens doors to endless possibilities for the future composers. This piece has inspired many composers, but there were also many imitators. The influence of Stravinsky and his “Rite to the Spring” has appeared many times in the music of modern films.
Even now, in the XXI century, the power of this music has not been overcome. “Rite to the Spring” is both musically and humanly at most primal and most confronting levels. The 1913 audience was not ready for it at all, and still, World War I that followed proved how little it took for the humanity to rot to such a primitive fierceness. Indeed, visionary and before its time, “Rite to the Spring” has kept its power to these days. This is a piece that is also the celebration of creativity. The new music was born and sometimes births are fierce and violent.
In this general, long winter, let us expect the spring as soon as possible. Without any sacrifices. Without fierceness. Before our minds, ears, eyes freeze completely, before our souls freeze irrevocably.
Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska