Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Road to the Rite, Part 3: Petrushka

In my last post in this series I made a passing reference to "a lot of quite lovely and quite conventional ballet music, the sort where you see the dancers wafting around on stage." This "wafting around on stage" music I associate with 19th century ballet such as Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky. Let's have a listen. This is an excellent complete performance from the Kirov (complete credits at the beginning) and if you want to focus on specifically what I mean, go to the 31 minute mark:

This is classic 19th century Russian ballet and therefore the establishing context for Stravinsky's pieces for the Ballets Russes. This is, in other words, what the audience had in mind when they attended a performance of a Russian ballet company. The music is in various tempos and uses various dance genres, but a lot of it is lyrical, meaning not too fast and with smooth, legato phrases. No stomping around! Classical ballet is all about defying gravity and lyrical beauty.

In parts of the Firebird, and more so in Petruska and the Rite, Stravinsky makes a fundamental stylistic change. Most of the commentary on this music is about the melodic and harmonic aspect, as we discussed last time, but the most important changes in the style are on the rhythmic level. Small parts of the Firebird, larger parts of Petrushka and a great deal of the Rite are very much "stompy" music, music with a heavy pulse. In the Firebird, this is largely restricted to the Infernal Dance, but in Petrushka we get more and earlier. Most of this ballet is at very fast tempi and quite a bit of it has a heavy pulse.

First, let's have a listen to Petrushka. This is a production from the Bolshoi that recreates the original sets, costumes and choreography from the original production:

Right from the beginning we hear the much greater role given to the percussion, the ubiquitous accents instead of flowing legato and the heavy pulses in the bass instruments. This, more than the famous "Petrushka chord," is what gives the ballet its unique character. Sure, the melodic and harmonic structures are important, and most particularly when we have two very different textures, rhythmic and harmonic, colliding, which creates a kind of musical irony or cubism, depending on how you want to analyze it. There are a lot of examples starting in the introduction, whose motoric music is interrupted by tweedling in the high winds in a different tempo. Another example is at the 20:10 mark where a kind of limping waltz is periodically interrupted by a meandering melody in the cor anglais in the "wrong" key. But the underlying musical vocabulary is rhythmic, accented and much weightier than previous ballet music. For an example of what I am talking about, go to the 25:10 mark in the above clip, the dance with the peasant and the bear, where we hear a characteristically heavy accompaniment in the low strings, with a raucous melody in the high clarinet. (And, good god, I think that's a real bear!)

As is often done, you can look at this ballet in terms of its Russian folktale flavour, the leading role given to a marionette, the use of Russian folk music and so on, but I like to look at the musical foundation that makes all this work, the frenetic, syncopated and heavily accented rhythms that drive the music forward, the piquant slow sections that give eerie pause and prepare the next fast section. What I find most striking about the musical texture here is how very different it is from previous ballets and even from the Firebird. Instead of romantic lyricism we have crisp, sardonic, rhythmically involved music that can express tragedy, exuberance, irony and an earthy expressiveness. This is what distinguishes these ballets by Stravinsky from the earlier ones by Tchaikovsky which were also based on Russian folktales. It's the medium not the message (if by "medium" we mean the musical elements and by "message" we mean the story elements, costuming, sets and so on).

All three of these ballets are heard more often with just the orchestral score in a concert presentation than they are with a full ballet production. The reason is that the music works just fine on its own. Taruskin even makes the point that it was the ballet production, not the music, that was the real cause of the riot at the premiere of the Rite of Spring. Audiences have always readily accepted the music, even from the earliest performances.

Let's end with a concert performance of the score of Petrushka. This is Pierre Boulez conducting the New York Philharmonic, with the score:


Steven said...

Excellent read. But I don't quite agree that 'Audiences have always readily accepted the music, even from the earliest performances.' If you are indeed referring to the Rite of Spring, there was already open dissent during the opening few minutes, before the curtain had been drawn and the dancing had begun. Moreover, a good minority of contemporary reviews were very disparaging about the music, and some others that were merely lukewarm. I wrote a little essay on the premiere in university a year or two back, and, quickly skimming through my notes, came across reviews saying the harmonies are 'an offence against public decency', or criticisms of crude musical techniques, one reviewer particularly hung up over the use of minor doubling, another saying Stravinsky 'has attempted to synthesise his music with noise'. (If you haven't found it already, Truman Bullard, who wrote a phenomenal dissertation on the premiere, also translated most of the contemporary reviews into English, and they're an absolutely fascinating read if you can get hold of the volume.) I agree that there's no doubt the dancing itself and Roerich's design were the really controversial bits -- and 1913 was a pretty good year for controversy-making -- but I don't get the impression the music was blameless.

Anyway, I look forward to your post on the RoS!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the comment Steven. Yes, I was making a bit of a radical claim and made it worse by not giving a proper defense of it! Richard Taruskin presents his view that audiences were fairly quick to accept the music of the Rite in the earliest performances after the succès de scandale of the premiere. In the essay "Resisting the Rite" in the volume "Russian Music at Home and Abroad" he says:

The Ballets Russes presented The Rite three more times in Paris in June of 1913, as scheduled, then took it to London for another three showings in July. These performances went off without incident, but neither did they generate any special enthusiasm or interest. London critics expressed a bit of self-satisfaction at the placidity with which their countrymen received what had so antagonized the Parisians a month before. “We are either surprisingly quick or surprisingly careless in accommodating ourselves to new forms of art,” said the Times.” 15 Nijinsky gave an interview to the Daily Mail in which he “cordially sa[ id] thanks and ‘Bravo!’ to the English public for their serious interest and attention in The Festival of Spring. There was no ridicule . . . and there was great applause.” 16

Taruskin, Richard. Russian Music at Home and Abroad: New Essays (Kindle Locations 11975-11978). University of California Press. Kindle Edition.

I was not making the claim that the music reviewers were equally accepting! As you point out, they were not.

Steven said...

Ah, right, thanks for the clarification. I will certainly go read the Taruskin essay. I would be somewhat surprised to hear that not even the dancing caused controversy in London, though perhaps Parisian convictions about ballet, that most graceful and elevated of forms, were more strongly felt.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think Taruskin makes a point that the publicity for the premiere set things up for a strong reaction. Other than that, he is saying that the music on its own has not had trouble finding an audience.