Wednesday, May 29, 2013

One Hundredth Anniversary of the Rite of Spring

Today is the 100th anniversary of the first performance of the Rite of Spring, possibly the most important piece of early 20th century modernism. Here is an excellent article on the piece and its reception.

I'm not prepared to do so today, but I think it would be an excellent project to investigate the Rite, especially its rhythmic structures. For all the talk about how hugely influential the piece is, it is remarkable how little composers seem to study it. Other composers have been much more forthcoming about how they approach composition. I am thinking of people like Arnold Schoenberg, who wrote several very interesting books, one of which, Structural Functions of Harmony, I am reading right now. Bartók is another composer that has attracted a lot of investigation by composers as has Olivier Messiaen who also wrote about composition. But they have usually steered clear of Stravinsky.

One reason might be that how he set out to compose is rather hard to figure out. He went through a number of radically different stylistic phases, which might also discourage investigation. And there is always the sneaking suspicion that Stravinsky worked from instinct. He certainly didn't offer much in the way of clues in interviews--in fact, he often lied about things like whether he used folk melodies in the Rite. He did, as Taruskin demonstrated in a rather weighty book on Stravinsky.

The piece probably sounds rather different today than it did at the premiere. For one thing, orchestras nowadays are well up to the technical challenges, but in 1913, this was formidably difficult music. Take that compelling bassoon solo that opens the piece:

Click to enlarge

In 1913 this was well above the normal range of the bassoon. So it would likely have sounded strained with a harsh sound. Today, every bassoon student learns it as a matter of course, so it sounds perfectly normal with a nice, rounded sound.

Let's have a listen to the Rite, one of the few pieces from that time that seems as fresh today as the day it was premiered. Here is Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra and Ballet. The choreography is a reconstruction of the original by Nijinsky:

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