Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Stravinsky and The Rite, part 6

We're getting very near the end, as some pop lyricist said, and not many pages remain to cover in this series. Taruskin delves into the ways that Stravinsky evokes and contrasts three different modalities or "polytonalities": the octatonic collection, the whole tone collection and the diatonic collection. Out of these three he can construct simple C major chords, or strong dissonances. As Taruskin summarizes:
we now have whole-tone, octatonic, and diatonic constructs from the source melodies all running concurrently, and all intersecting on C, which pitch is thus promoted to the status of a specious tonic. [op. cit. p. 930]
I have worked with this kind of structure myself, to a limited extent, and it is both effective and curious. It seems as it you are writing, sort-of, tonal music, but always with strange twists. This is so different from the completely atonal approach of Schoenberg and his followers, where you are always wandering in a trackless (though at times very, very symmetrical!) landscape.

The "Dance of the Earth" is the section that the above discussion is about and Taruskin describes it as:
at once one of the most radical sections of The Rite--surely the most radical by far in Part I--and the dance most rigorously based on folk-derived source melodies.
He goes on to say that The Rite is Stravinsky's "Eroica," referring to the Symphony No. 3 of Beethoven which represented a similar kind of fundamental breakthrough. Nothing before (except, perhaps parts of Petrushka?) prepares you for the bewildering originality of The Rite. Taruskin's book, brilliant as it is, is not a detailed discussion of the technical aspects of the work. For that he directs us to two books: The Harmonic Organization of "The Rite of Spring" by Allen Forte and Stravinsky and "The Rite" by Pieter Van den Toorn.

The Rite resonates, not only with folklore, but with earlier Russian music for the stage such as Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada and Snegurochka. Incidentally, the Opéra Comique production of the latter opera and Stravinsky's ballet shared not only the same designer of sets and costumes, Nikolai Roerich, but nearly the same designs! The characteristic timbres of Russian folk wind instruments is another shared quality. What Stravinsky did that was truly new and original was to take two elements present in Russian music, the folkloristic and modernistic, and synthesize them in an original way.

One unifying factor in The Rite is its use of two octatonic tetrachords, a tritone apart:

A characteristic "triad" is created by taking the outer notes of the upper tetrachord, D and G, and the lowest note of the lower one, G#, or the outer notes of the lower and the top note of the upper: G#, C# and G. This kind of sonority is common enough for Taruskin to dub it The Rite chord by analogy with the Petrushka chord.

Taruksin points to an exact contemporary of Stravinsky's, Mikhail Laryonov (1881 - 1964) and his partner Natalia Goncharova (1881 - 1962), as pursuing the same synthesis between folklore and modernism in his work:

Click to enlarge
Both have transcended their sources and contexts to achieve a "pan-human" result in the phrase of Roerich. Both are about a radical formal simplification, the sacrifice of kul'tura on the altar of stikhiya. The culture rejected by The Rite was that of the German symphonic tradition. Instead, formal procedures are stripped down to what is most basic: extension through repetition, alternation and sheer accumulation. This is what gives The Rite its elemental power. Instead of harmonic progression, thematic development and smooth transitions there would be stasis and abrupt discontinuities.

Taruskin sees two different kinds of rhythmic innovations: the immobile, hypnotic ostinato and the irregularly spaced downbeats, both features of Russian folk music. Here is an example of the latter, which Rimsky-Korsakov took down from the singing of Borodin's maid!

The barring, both in this song transcription and in The Rite, is rather arbitrary. When you combine the two different rhythmic techniques, as Stravinsky characteristically did, you obtain one of his most original textures.

And that brings us to the end of our long journey. I might offer a drive-by analysis of one or two movements in the near future, but this, I think, completes our survey of the context for The Rite of Spring. This has been just a collection of notes from Richard Taruskin's monumental work of music scholarship, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra.

So for our final envoi, here is, yet again, a performance of the work. This is the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez, which is, I think, the version I first purchased around 1970:

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