Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring, part 1

Now it is finally time to take up Le Sacre du Printemps, The Rite of Spring, but before doing that, I want to just mention a couple of things regarding influence. So many who wrote about Petrushka assumed that, since it was written in France and premiered there, that it was somehow a "French" piece on Russian themes. Just how this is the case is never specified. Taruskin points out that composers like Ravel, who might use sonorities resembling the Petrushka chord, do so in a quite different way, as a decorative surface to an underlying classical structure. Whereas in Stravinsky, his usages come out of a long Russian octatonic tradition and are quite structural. In the case of Debussy, on the other hand, it seems to be the case that it was Debussy in his second book of Preludes for piano, dating from 1913, who was influenced by Petrushka, his favorite piece by Stravinsky. Taruskin refers to the Prelude 11, "Les tierces alternées" as "from beginning to end a study in Petrushka textures." [op. cit. p. 773]

The influence of Petrushka was particularly strong on the Parisian aesthetic of the 1920s, on composers like Les Six, particularly Auric and Poulenc. But enough of the "street ballet" Petrushka. On to the Rite.

The original conception of "The Great Sacrifice" actually predates Petrushka and Stravinsky promised his collaborator Roerich that he would get back to it as soon as the earlier ballet was finished. But before he did, he did some vocal settings, one of which provided a path to the latter ballet. Konstantin Balmont, while not the most fashionable poet, was, due to the sonorousness of his verse, immensely popular with composers. The anthology Zelyonïy vertograd (A Green Garden) from which the poem Zvezdolikiy was taken, consists of stylizations of Russian spiritual folklore. The inspiration was a sect, the skoptsï, known for their ritual castration, that were a breakaway from the khlïstï, known for their ritual, whirling dances. These late 18th century sects, with their evocation of a huge army of the castrated rather remind one of the Unsullied from Game of Thrones! This is the  esoteric subtext to the poem Stravinsky set.

A musical influence around this time on Stravinsky, despite his later denials, appears to have been Scriabin whose Prometheus was published in early 1911. Incidentally, one of the chords from the "motto" of the Stravinsky song Zvezdolikiy is a C minor chord superimposed on a C major chord:

"Coll. III" refers to one of the three possible octatonic scales

This is almost identical to the chord used by Jimi Hendrix that appears in "Purple Haze" though I wouldn't claim any influence. Others who used this sonority include Scriabin. As Hendrix used it, the root is doubled, the fifth omitted and a seventh added, (likely due to the way it lies on the guitar fingerboard) but the fundamental idea of having both the major and the minor thirds is shared with the Russians:

"Hendrix" chord

The melodic line found in the Zvezdolikiy motto also connects to perhaps the most memorable melodic motif from the Rite, the ostinato found in the pizzicato strings in "Augures printaniers":

Zvezdolikiy, dedicated to Debussy, is also known under its French title Le roi des étoiles:

Debussy, among others, regarded this little "cantata" as being unperformable due to intonation problems for the choir and it was not premiered until 1939! The importance  of the song is due to its development of the intersections between the octatonic collections and the diatonic and whole-tone ones, techniques that will prove to be of great importance in the composition of the Rite.

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