The music from the Stravinsky's ballet "The Rite of Spring" is one of the most popular 20th century classical music works. If you haven't heard it yet, you should most definitely do so, but not before reading what I have to share below 😉
I've known the Rite of Spring for a long time, might have heard it first as a kid. And it has always been surrounded by a lot of hype and appreciation from various people. I think for quite a long time I didn't get it at all though. Huge parts of it sounded like a cacophony to me and even after I gradually learnt to appreciate more modern and atonal music, I could still struggle in understanding it. I've been on and off about it throughout the years. While on a subconscious level I could feel there's something special about it, I would also be occasionally annoyed by it.
Until relatively recently when I read about the history of its creation, the events that followed, etc. And then I watched the actual ballet for the first time! Yep, I had never watched the ballet performance before, only listened to the music, because I don't like ballet. And it all clicked right away! Suddenly everything was in its right place, I could make perfect sense of it all and I find myself I can't stop listening to it (even only the music again) on an almost daily basis.
Take it with a grain of salt, I don't pretend for authenticity of the facts I present 🙂
So, in 1909 a Russian ballet company called Ballets Russes, led by an impresario called Sergei Dhiagilev began performing in Paris, France. They commissioned young composers to write ballets for them, not only Russian. Among them was the young Igor Stravinsky who first wrote Firebird whose music is a very fine sounding orchestral masterpiece that is accessible and melodic, with some majestic orchestrations and it was accepted really well by the French. It was then followed by his second ballet, Petrushka. Both were based on Russian tales and Stravinsky incorporated Russian folklore melodies and themes. Around that time the French society had this prejudice that Russians are rather primitive and undeveloped and (this is my own, probably biased interpretation) the French loved these ballets not so much because of their obvious sophistication and elegance, but more for the exotic value of their Russian "barbaric" origins. At this point Diaghilev and Stravinsky (maybe a bit fed up by that notion?) decided to give the French audience what they wanted: sheer brutality and barbarity. You think we're barbaric? OK, here's a real one for you then!
Stravinsky was inspired by a Lithuanian poem about a young maiden who danced herself to death as a sacrifice to pagan gods. Here's a quote from Wikipedia:
The concept behind The Rite of Spring, developed by Roerich from Stravinsky's outline idea, is suggested by its subtitle, "Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts"; the scenario depicts various primitive rituals celebrating the advent of spring, after which a young girl is chosen as a sacrificial victim and dances herself to death.
Everything about the ballet was intentionally extreme and crooked, if I may call it this way. The pagan story of various rites and ultimately a sacrifice, the stage designs and costumes of Roerich, the choreography of Nijinsky with non-typical ballet steps, with maidens represented as innocent young girls with feet closed inwards. And of course the revolutionary music of Stravinsky with a lot of dissonances, unexpected instrument registers, aggressive rhythms and innovative orchestration and almost impossible complexity for the musicians with ever changing odd meters. But what's actually important here (and I realized only recently) is you shouldn't listen to that music in isolation. It just doesn't make much sense without the ballet performance. It's a soundtrack! It supports the imagery and immensely amplifies the folk horror story that this ultimately is 😀 Just read short synopsis of the parts:
|Part I: Adoration of the Earth|
|Introduction||Before the curtain rises, an orchestral introduction resembles, according to Stravinsky, "a swarm of spring pipes|
|Augurs of Spring||The celebration of spring begins in the hills. An old woman enters and begins to foretell the future.|
|Ritual of Abduction||Young girls arrive from the river, in single file. They begin the "Dance of the Abduction".|
|Spring Rounds||The young girls dance the Khorovod, the "Spring Rounds".|
|Ritual of the Rival Tribes||The people divide into two groups in opposition to each other, and begin the "Ritual of the Rival Tribes".|
|Procession of the Sage||A holy procession leads to the entry of the wise elders, headed by the Sage who brings the games to a pause and blesses the earth.|
|Dance of the Earth||The people break into a passionate dance, sanctifying and becoming one with the earth.|
|Part II: The Sacrifice|
|Mystic Circles of the Young Girls||The young girls engage in mysterious games, walking in circles.|
|Glorification of the Chosen One||One of the young girls is selected by fate, being twice caught in the perpetual circle, and is honoured as the "Chosen One" with a martial dance.|
|Evocation of the Ancestors||In a brief dance, the young girls invoke the ancestors.|
|Ritual Action of the Ancestors||The Chosen One is entrusted to the care of the old wise men.|
|Sacrificial Dance||The Chosen One dances to death in the presence of the old men, in the great "Sacrificial Dance".|
No wonder the premiere was sensational and scandalous with different fractions of the audience either praising or booing it, people fighting, screaming, it was a shock! Well, of course, nothing like that existed before even remotely. I can't even imagine the genius of Stravinsky who can alone devise such sounds and rhythms in a time when even the most avant-garde music sounded more like late Romanticism and Impressionism. It's easy to look at atonalism and modernism 100+ years later and acknowledge it (even if detesting it) but how about 1913 when almost nothing like that existed! Stravinsky almost single-handedly gave rise to the modernism and was highly influential to many composers that followed. It may sound cheesy but even modern movie soundtrack music would have been different if it wasn't for Stravinsky.
For the 100th anniversary there was a performance in the Paris Theatre using the original choreography. It's the one I watched that finally made me understand all of it. Again, I don't like ballet and I still don't like the typical one, but watching this is simply mesmerizing, there's perfect synergy between body movement (even if "ugly"), music, sound, story, impression.
Here it is, hope you like it:
Even if you don't, I won't get mad 😉