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Composed: 1910-1913, rev. 1947
Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes (3rd = 2nd piccolo), alto flute, 4 oboes (4th = 2nd English horn), English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd = 2nd bass clarinet), E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons (4th = 2nd contrabassoon), contrabassoon, 8 horns (7th and 8th = Wagner tuba), piccolo trumpet, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass trombone, 2 tubas, 2 sets of timpani, percussion (antique cymbals, bass drum, cymbals, guiro, tam-tam, tambourine, and triangle), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 31, 1928, Eugene Goossens conducting
“The idea of The Rite of Spring came to me while I was still composing Firebird,” Igor Stravinsky recalled, 45 years after the ballet’s first performance in 1913, in his book Conversations. “I had dreamed of a scene of pagan ritual in which a chosen sacrificial virgin danced herself to death.” If Stravinsky is to be believed, this dream marked the beginning of a process that culminated in the premiere of one of the 20th century’s most important musical works.
Stravinsky’s music was meant to capture the spirit of the scenario, which he had outlined with the help of painter and ethnographer Nikolai Roerich and dancer and choreographer Mikhail Fokine during the spring and summer of 1910. Roerich had filled Stravinsky’s head with tales about all sorts of rituals from ancient Russia – divinations, sacrifices, dances, and so on – involving a variety of characters. The ballet that resulted revolves around the return of spring and the renewal of the earth through the sacrifice of a virgin. In his hand-written version of the story, Stravinsky described The Rite as “a musical choreographic work. It represents pagan Russia and is unified by a single idea: the mystery and the great surge of the creative power of spring….”
Stravinsky completed the score on March 29, 1913, and exactly two months later, the ballet premiered in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where it caused the famous scandal that ushered in modern music. The stories are legend – the people slugging each other in the audience, the heated arguments between the baffled bourgeoisie and the artistic avant-garde, the dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (who had replaced Fokine) shouting numbers to the dancers over the din, and the troupe’s impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, turning the house lights on and off in an attempt to calm the audience.
But the audience would not be assuaged. Some were scandalized and others electrified by what was unfolding in the theater. Nijinsky’s choreography and the wild, unchecked power of Stravinsky’s score were something wholly new. Stravinsky wrote for one of his largest orchestras ever for The Rite, and he used it with an assurance and confidence one would hardly expect from a composer just out of his twenties and with only two big successes – The Firebird and Petrushka – behind him.
But those two scores, for all of their individuality and accomplishment, did not seem like they were leading to The Rite. What Stravinsky did was totally unexpected. The evocative opening, with the bassoon playing in its highest register, immediately transports the listener to some vague, primeval past as Stravinsky conjures what he described as “a sort of pagan cry.” The propulsive, unbridled rhythmic energy of the ensuing dance for the young girls justifies the tag “primitive” often assigned to the music. Later in the ballet, during Part II, Stravinsky patiently builds to a sustained climax for the entry and ritual of the ancients. The stage action during the ballet’s second half, leading up to the sacrifice, was enough to capture the attention of even that raucous audience at the first performance. Finally quiet, they could hear Stravinsky’s score and watch as Maria Piltz, the dancer who played the sacrificial victim, stood motionless as the ritual unfolded around her, gradually coming to life to perform her dance, with its angular contortions and tortured motions. Her collapse, which, according to Stravinsky, represented “the annual cycle of forces which are born, and which fall again into the bosom of nature,” marked the end of another cycle, one which only a few years earlier had culminated in the ultra-Romanticism of Gustav Mahler and the young Richard Strauss. The bosom of nature had yielded something new in their stead: Stravinsky and musical modernism.
– John Mangum is Vice President of Artistic Planning for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.