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Stravinsky has the bassoon right up in the top of its range here in the beginning of the Rite of Spring. Be ambiguous with the tonality: this bassoon melody is in A minor with an E minor dominant. But what really makes this opening so compelling is the contrasting harmony in the other instruments. The horn (transposing, in F) enters with a C# to D, suggesting D minor. Then the bass clarinet (in B flat) enters with a chromatic scale, A flat down to E (or G# down to E) and the A clarinet (also transposing) in parallel C# down to A flat. We might want to hear that as a suggestion of E major, so we have three different tonalities. But the writing is so crystalline that they don't blur one another, but appear as distinct areas.
Then there is the rhythm. Using fermatas and two layers of triplets (eighth and sixteenth), Stravinsky creates an improvisatory feel in this introductory passage. The bassoon keeps repeating that opening motif, but in different rhythmic shapes.
The orchestration really is unusual. Using the bassoon at the top of its range makes for a very unusual color and that is emphasized by the contrast with the softer sound of the horn and the reedy combination of the bass clarinet and the clarinet in A. It is safe to say that no piece before this (and possibly since) has started with this kind of sonority.
Now let's have a listen. Here is Pierre Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra.
I'm not going to analyze the whole Rite, or even just the first part. That would take weeks. But if you browse through the score I think you will continue to see these characteristics appearing in many places:
- very unusual sonorities with instruments at the extremes of their range and unusual groupings of instruments
- modal melodies (Taruskin has shown that Stravinsky made use of Russian folk melodies)
- polytonality (different keys or modes in different instruments)
- rhythmic variety and complexity with frequent changes of meter
A hundred composers have used these same methods, but only a few, like Stravinsky, made great music with them.
Here is a clip of the whole Rite of Spring with better sound: