Sunday, February 8, 2015

Stravinsky: A look at the Rite of Spring

Stravinsky sketched by Picasso

I have talked about the Rite of Spring before here and here, but it is such a monumental piece of music it is worth looking at again (and again).

Different writers have taken different approaches to the Rite. One of the most analytical is that of Pieter C. van den Toorn whose book Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring: The Beginnings of a Musical Language is an outstanding study of the music from a technical point of view. Richard Taruskin in his Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra takes a more historical approach and links the music to Russian traditions including hunting down some folk-tune sources of some of the melodic material in the Rite. Others have noticed how much Stravinsky drew, not only from the brilliant orchestrations of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakoff, but also from the layered, atmospheric textures of the French school, especially Claude Debussy whose Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is an obvious inspiration. I talked about that in the second of my previous posts linked above.

Not the least of the remarkable things about the Rite is that its impact today is nearly as fresh as it was a hundred years ago. This powerful music has not aged, and is not dated, one sign of its profound aesthetic significance.

Today I want to look at a very short section from Part 1, barely a minute long, the Jeu du rapt (Ritual of abduction):

Here is the first page of the score of this section:

In his study Toorn shows the relationship between a melody taken from Anton Juszkiewicz’s massive anthology of Lithuanian folk tunes (a copy of which Stravinsky had while he was composing the Rite), its transformation in Stravinsky's sketch book (which luckily surfaced a number of years ago) and its final version in the Jeu de rapt:

But let's put all this aside for the moment and just have a look at what Stravinsky is doing here.

First of all, this movement goes by very fast. The dotted quarter is 132 bpm and there are a lot of sixteenth notes. At the beginning the strings are playing a tremolando that you only hear as a kind of haze:

If you look at that chord you see that it is an A sharp minor (in the violas) on top of a C chord with both a major and a minor third. Stravinsky had been experimenting with polytonality in Petrouchka, but it is used much more here. Incidentally, that chord with the major and minor thirds was used by Jimi Hendrix in "Purple Haze" and is therefore known in pop music as "the Hendrix chord". Then we have the version of the Lithuanian folk tune:

This is treble clef so it suggests G major. This tune skitters around in the highest register and is punctuated with some ferocious sounds in the tympani and bass drum:

Two other elements are ascending and descending arpeggios in the bassoons and lower strings:

And some squeeze-play barking from the eight horns:

That, plus a few glisses and some virtuoso orchestration, is about it. These elements are sliced, diced and juxtaposed in a montage creating a kind of structure that is about as far from the "organic unity" of the Central European masters as could be imagined. This is music that is a denial of the basic structural principles of music of the last few centuries.

Stravinsky and Schoenberg were the two great rivals during the first quarter of the century. Schoenberg was working out the implications of atonality within the fundamental presupposition of the organic unities of motif and counterpoint while Stravinsky was rejecting all that and embedding modal folk tunes (and folk-like motifs) within a brilliantly orchestrated texture of contrasts and oppositions.

What is really amazing is how fast he arrived at this kind of structure. The Firebird (1910), while a brilliant piece of music, is not so terribly far removed from Scheherezade. Petrouchka, just a year later in 1911, is a huge step forward. But the Rite of Spring is like a dozen steps forward in comparison. Stravinsky spent months and months working it out in a tiny room in Clarens, Switzerland only eight feet by eight, just big enough for a piano, a chair and a table. What he did in that tiny room, month after month, was create one of the finest pieces of 20th century music and one of the most influential.

Just to hear how astonishing is the progression from the Firebird to Petrouchka to the Rite, let's listen to all three pieces. Here is the "Infernal Dance" from the Firebird:

Here is Petrouchka, complete:

And the Rite of Spring:

The first performance, in Paris in 1913, took seventeen rehearsals to put together!

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