The Rite of Spring

Caroline Rae

The Rite of Spring is an icon of modernism that has dominated the 20th century. More than a century after its first performance, the power of this revolutionary work remains unabated. The third of a trio of ballets including The Firebird and Petrushka that Stravinsky composed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes between 1910 and 1913, The Rite defined the beginning of a new age: with Europe on the brink of war, the work’s explosion of musical convention presaged the political cataclysm that was to destroy the old world order. The notorious riot that arose in response to the savage primitivism of Stravinsky’s music and Nijinsky’s choreography at its première on 29 May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées is legendary – a significant birth for a work that was to have far-reaching consequences for literature and art, as well as music. 

In the earliest of Stravinsky’s accounts of The Rite, he affirmed his first vision for a work depicting a pagan ritual in which a sacrificial virgin dances herself to death to propitiate the god of spring came to him while composing The Firebird. Seeking to develop his ideas for a radical new primitivism, Stravinsky contacted Russia’s leading anthropologist Nikolai Roerich, a specialist on folk art and ancient ritual to work out a scenario. Although Roerich’s and Diaghilev’s accounts of the work’s inception differ, plans for a new ballet then titled ‘The Great Sacrifice’ were underway by 1911. Roerich designed the sets and costumes, in addition to writing the scenario, while Vaslav Nijinsky undertook the choreography. By 1912, Stravinsky had completed Part One of the score in a version for two pianos, which he performed privately in June that year with Debussy. Louis Laloy described the occasion: ‘We were dumbfounded, overwhelmed by this hurricane which had come down from the depths of the ages, and which had taken life by its roots.’ Later the same year, Debussy wrote: ‘The performance of Le Sacre du printemps haunts me like a good nightmare… I await the performance like a gluttonous child to whom sweets have been promised.’ Following further private performances of the piano versions for Diaghilev and the conductor Pierre Monteux, the orchestral score was completed by March 1913.

Subtitled Pictures from Pagan Russia, the work is in two parts – Adoration of the Earth and The Sacrifice – with each main element of the scenario identified by titled sub-sections according to the requirements of the ballet. The Rite was thus conceived as a sectional, non-developmental structure where contrasting blocks of material are stated and juxtaposed, slicing into one another like a sort of musical Cubism. Although scored for large orchestra, including four trumpets, bass trumpet, eight horns and two tubas as well as vastly expanded woodwind and percussion sections, The Rite combines the granitic and massive with the brooding and intimate, individual instruments and sections being assigned distinct roles within the texture. 

Opening with the nasal theme of the famous bassoon solo at the top of the instrument’s register, the woodwind responses suggest a primordial world at the dawn of time. The brutality of creation is evoked in ‘Augurs of Spring’, its pounding ostinato of repeated quavers being introduced by strings in dramatic successive down-bows. Following the terrifying hunt for the sacrificial victim that is the ‘Ritual of Abduction’ where strident brass and woodwind fanfares are juxtaposed with raging tremolandos, ‘Spring Rounds’ introduces sections of relative but ominous calm with incantatory melodies on woodwind, while plodding crotchets on strings build into a screaming climax. Fury takes centre stage once more in ‘Ritual of the Rival Tribes’, its strident bitonality, storming horns and timpani triggering the thudding percussive incantation of the ‘Procession of the Sage’. In dramatic contrast, the appearance of the Sage is marked by near silence and a glassy sustained atonal chord on string harmonics. Part One concludes with the raucous ‘Dance of the Earth’ characterised by screeching glissandos, piercing accented chords and boiling ostinatos.

Like Part One, Part Two also begins mysteriously, gradually introducing the haunting, multi-metred melody of the ‘Mystic Circles of Young Girls’, which is fully stated on divisi violas. This section is interrupted by the most dramatic moment of the entire score; Stravinsky’s 11/4 bar of fortissimo chords played on strings with a quartet of timpani and bass drum – the victim is to be sacrificed. This introduces the ‘Glorification of the Chosen One’, a savage and ferocious dance that parallels the ‘Ritual of Abduction’. Blazing C major fanfares on wind and brass, underpinned by a D sharp in double basses, announce the ‘Evocation of the Ancestors’, while the menacing ‘Ritual Action of the Ancestors’ marks the beginning of the end with its brooding woodwind solos, incessant ostinatos and horns blaring pavillons en l’air. The apocalyptical climax arrives with the viciously stabbing syncopated chords of the ‘Sacrificial Dance’ where metre is in an almost perpetual state of flux. Ending with tutti sforzando fortissimo chords, it is the final flourish on flutes that is most memorable – an echo of incantation.

Although The Rite was the first work of the 20th century to make a complete break with the past, it paradoxically acknowledges tradition through building on procedures explored by The Five, especially the use of octatonic writing and Russian as well as Lithuanian folk melodies. Yet Stravinsky’s treatment of folk material is startlingly new; while angular dissonances and bitonality provide radical new harmonic contexts, the incantatory qualities of the melodies are enhanced through added ornamentation (as in the woodwind material of the ‘Introduction’) and through exploiting their rhythmic characteristics. Together with his block-like sectionalism and layered ostinatos creating drive and density, Stravinsky’s treatment of rhythm and metre in The Rite is among the most far-reaching of his innovations, stimulating many composers to new discoveries, not least Messiaen and Boulez. In 1961, Stravinsky wrote: ‘I was guided by no system whatever. I had only my ear to help me; I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which The Rite of Spring passed.’ 

Further Reading