Sunday, September 10, 2017

Stravinsky and the Rite, part 2

The 1912 Ballets Russes season did not have a Stravinsky premiere--he was hard at work on The Rite already. He also took time to write Three Japanese Lyrics and make the acquaintance of Schoenberg, with whom he was quite impressed at the time (later on their rivalry came to the fore). Stravinsky heard Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire at a concert in Berlin's Choralion Saal on 8 December 1912. Just a few days before, Schoenberg had been Stravinsky's guest at a performance of Petrushka.

Taruskin discerns some influence by Schoenberg on Stravinsky around this time in a tendency towards a spare linearity. Stravinsky was also impressed with Schoenberg's virtuoso writing for instruments.

The Three Japanese Lyrics were received positively in France, but performances in Russia were greeted with the most vicious invective (see Taruskin, pp. 844-5). It is not surprising that more and more Stravinsky turned away from Russia and to the West. Ironically, The Rite itself, while usually viewed as being a powerful break with tradition is in reality profoundly linked to tradition, which gave Stravinsky a unique approach, different from most composers of the day. Taruskin writes:
The usual accounts of the work place almost exclusive emphasis on the putative rupture with tradition; and despite all his subsequent disclaimers, that is the view the composer chose to abet, increasingly alienated as he was from the cultural milieu in which the ballet was conceived. It was, however, precisely because The Rite was so profoundly traditional, both as to cultural outlook and as to musical technique, that Stravinsky was able to find through it a voice that would serve him through the next difficult phase of his career.
Precisely because The Rite was neither rupture nor upheaval but a magnificent extension, it revealed to Stravinsky a path that would sustain him through a decade of unimaginable ruptures and upheavals brought on by events far beyond his control. [Taruskin, op. cit. p. 847 ]
 The cultural context in Russia in the early part of the 20th century was characterized by a "relentless sense of catastrophe" in the words of the poet Alexander Blok. The tragedy of modern man lay in his estrangement from the earth and the business of humanity was to heal this rift, to recover the stikhiya or elemental spontaneity of the people. Artists must renounce kul'tura (culture of the intelligentsia) and become elemental people, indivisible from the earth. The model for all this was the life of the peasant, who still practices the ancient religion of the earth. One of the artists who followed this project was Nikolai Roerich (1874 - 1947), then (early 1909) head of the revived World of Art organization. Benois recalled him as:
utterly absorbed in dreams of prehistoric, patriarchal and religious life--of the days when the vast, limitless plains of Russia and the shores of her lakes and rivers were peopled with the forefathers of the present inhabitants. Roerich's mystic, spiritual experiences make him strangely susceptible to the charm of the ancient world
Apart from being a masterly essayist,  Roerich was the creator of a series of archaistic paintings that depict this kind of ancient life, one of which, Idols, Taruskin reproduces in his book. Unfortunately, all the photos in the book are black and white and extremely muddy! Shame on you, University of California Press. Luckily, the Internet can provide us with much better.

Nikolai Roerich, Idols. Click to enlarge
Roerich was catapulted to fame when Diaghilev chose him to provide the curtain, decor and costumes for the second act of Borodin's Prince Igor, presented in the opening program of the first saison russe in Paris, May 18, 1909. The Parisian audiences felt as if transported to the ends of the earth. 

A while back we mentioned the trend called "Scythianism" which was just one manifestation of a longing for a primitive wholeness that influenced writers, poets, painters and composers. The only source of information about the ancient Scyths is found in Herodotus, The Persian Wars, Bk. IV where they sound a lot like the Reavers from Firefly, using the skulls of their enemies as drinking bowls. The most Scythian composer was the young Prokofiev even before he wrote his Scythian Suite in 1915. The one thing we know for sure is that the conception of The Rite of Spring arose out of a whole complex of ideas and trends that were very much "in the air." After Stravinsky had a dream of pagan sacrifice, he wrote to Roerich in early December 1912, who had a similar dream of his own. Stravinsky described his dream in his autobiography in these words:
One day, when I was finishing the last pages of L'Oiseau de feu in St. Petersburg, I had a fleeting vision which came to me as a complete surprise, my mind at the moment being full of other things. I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring. [quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 862]
In other accounts, Stravinsky describes it as an actual dream and later on he demoted Roerich's role to being one of mere designer. Other accounts from the time actually credit Roerich with the original idea (Taruskin cites a number of sources on p. 863). The truth is likely that they were both equally responsible for the idea and its fleshing out into a ballet scenario. "The Great Sacrifice," to use the original working title, would be all stikhiya, all primitive immediacy, with choreographic action devoid of a conventional plot. The ballet would not "tell the story" of a primitive ritual, it would be that ritual. The balletic equivalent of recitative, the mime that was so prevalent in The Firebird, would be eliminated entirely in favor of dance.

That sets the scene for the composition of the ballet, which we will get to in subsequent posts. For now, let's look and listen to a revival of the original production with Roerich's costumes and sets and Fokine's choreography. UPDATE: Correction, the choreographer was Nijinsky, not Fokine, who had already left the Ballets russes.


Will Wilkin said...

Man in society tends to create all-encompassing physical and cognitive structures that exile nature from daily life and replace it with a synthetic, artificial existence. Its why a visit to the countryside or great natural places can be so exhilarating and spiritually powerful. Poets and songwriters often seem most authentic and "true" when they use animals or celestial objects --nature-- as their subject or to carry a metaphor for human experience.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes! One critical function of art is to reintegrate us with nature.