Dreams and the Shock of the New: The Genesis of The Rite of Spring

The ballet The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) is one of the most famous and influential pieces in twentieth century music. It sparked a furore on its first performance in Paris in 1913, owing its startling, coruscating score and the controversial theme of a pagan sacrificial rite. It has nevertheless become a wildly popular piece in concert and retains to this day the power to astonish and enthral audiences.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica Yearbook of 1913 gives a fascinating, if curiously opinionated assessment of the musical developments of the time. Noting the apparent shift of the centre of musical creativity from Germany, it states that “a new life of music has appeared in France, principally in the works of Debussy, Ravel and others of their school, but it appears to have died down again or dissipated itself into a morbid and precious trifling with the exquisite interpretation of things not worth interpreting”. The Rite of Spring changed all of that.

Line-drawing of Igor Stravinsky by Pablo Picasso
Line-drawing of Igor Stravinsky by Pablo Picasso

In his autobiography, Stravinsky says that the inspiration for the ballet came to him in a dream. “One day [in 1910], when I was finishing the last pages of L’Oiseau de Feu [The Firebird] in St Petersburg, I had a fleeting vision … I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of Spring. Such was the theme of the Sacre du Printemps [The Rite of Spring].”

On the stark, uncompromising nature of the music, he continued the other-worldly musings by saying “Very little immediate tradition lies behind The Rite of Spring – and no theory. I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which The Rite passed”. It seems only fitting that such startlingly original music which sounds primitive in its iconoclasm should have vaguely mystical origins, but Stravinsky is not always the most reliable of raconteurs.

Stravinsky achieved success early on in his career. While showing a musical precocity as a child, he instead studied law and philosophy at university but nevertheless found time to have private lessons with the great Russian composer, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908). The young Stravinsky was talent-spotted by the aristocratic impresario Sergei Diaghilev after a performance in St. Petersburg of the early works Scherzo fantastique and Feu d’artifice. Diaghilev commissioned from Stravinsky some orchestrations of Chopin for the ballet Les Syphides for his newly formed itinerant ballet company, the Ballet Russes, which he was taking to Paris for the 1909 season. This was followed in 1910 by a commission for a full-length original score for the ballet The Firebird. Stravinsky was not Diaghilev’s first choice for the commission; that had originally been Anatoly Lyadov (in fact, Stravinsky was only sixth on Diaghilev’s list). With its vivid, lush orchestration, The Firebird was an instant success and made Stravinsky famous.  Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) is reported to have said to him about the work “Well, you’ve got to start somewhere!”. The Firebird was followed by a commission for the ballet Petrushka (1911) – another triumph which Debussy adored, its clever, spiky and rhythmic orchestration and polytonality further sealing Stravinsky’s reputation.

But any disquiet that some might have had for the barbaric edginess of the music in Petrushka was tame in comparison to that felt by the audience in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29th May 1913, when the curtain rose on the first performance of his most ground-breaking work, the ballet The Rite of Spring. Disastrous first nights can have dire consequences – one recalls Sergei Rachmaninov’s nervous breakdown after a botched performance of his First Symphony by an ill-rehearsed orchestra and a plainly sozzled conductor, the composer Alexander Glazunov. But for Stravinsky and Diaghilev, the brouhaha that met The Rite of Spring, rather than being a catastrophe, was a public relations triumph and, as Diaghilev admitted immediately afterwards, it was “Exactly what I wanted!”

Reports differ widely on what happened that night and even who attended.. Certainly the audience enjoyed the first two items on the programme: the charming Les Sylphides and the latest crowd-pleaser, Le Spectre de la Rose performed by the fêted dancer Vaslav Nijinsky to music by Carl Maria von Weber. But it seems that laughter broke out during the opening bars of The Rite of Spring (where a solo bassoon plays at a painfully high tessitura) to be followed by jeers and whistles. Stravinsky himself later recalled that when the curtain finally rose “…on the group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down, the storm broke”. There is no evidence of fisticuffs, rather an inchoate rowdiness which surged between different factions in the audience (but it does seem to be a miracle that the conductor, Pierre Monteux, ever managed to reach the end of the work). The archly conservative and older statesman of French music, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921) may or may not have been present and may or may not have joined in with the braying of the audience, but he did later tell Stravinsky that he thought him insane and, of the opening bassoon solo, “If that’s a bassoon, I’m a baboon!”

The dancers from the original performance of The Rite of Spring, featuring costumes and backdrop by Nicholas Roerich.
The dancers from the original performance of The Rite of Spring, featuring costumes and backdrop by Nicholas Roerich.

Undoubtedly the highly unconventional choreography by the dancer Nijinsky was a major factor in the uproar, with dance steps that emphasised the primitiveness of the spectacle (with angular movements and instructions, variously, to land flat-footedly after leaps). This was a flagrant break with tradition and was shocking for its time. However, it was not as if the theatre was cleared after the ensuing fracas; the audience stuck around for the final item on the programme, the second act of Borodin’s Prince Igor with its famous Polovtsian Dances.

The music of the Rite of Spring is difficult to categorise; it is neither atonal nor is it in any particular key; it freely uses polytonality, snarling dissonance, octatonic scales and other modes but, rather than sounding experimental or aleatory, it has great harmonic and rhythmic coherence and an unstoppable drive. With its extraordinary orchestration, this ‘rhythmic juggernaut’ has a distinctly primeval feel to it. The percussive, rhythmic and relentlessly mechanical sound of the music is even more apparent in the version for piano duet which pre-dates the orchestral version. Stravinsky had originally composed most of The Rite of Spring  at the piano in a hotel room at the Swiss resort of Clarens in the spring of 1912;  shortly thereafter he gave a private reading of a duet version at the home of the distinguished critic,  Louis Laloy, with Stravinsky’s older friend and champion, Claude Debussy, who effortlessly sight-read the base part while Stravinsky hummed the missing lines. What a glorious performance that must have been!

Concerning the influences in The Rite of Spring, Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) was onto something when he said in a lecture at Harvard University in 1943 that all three of Stravinsky’s ballets for Diaghilev were based on “Russian peasant music”, especially in The Rite of Spring where “even the origin of the rough-grained, brittle and jerky musical structure backed by ostinatos … may be sought in the short-breathed Russian peasant motifs”. Bartók was a great admirer of Stravinsky and was inspired in his own music through his extensive collection and study of folk music from what is now modern-day Hungary and Romania. But Stravinsky flatly denied the influence of folk music, even saying some years after Bartok’s death “I never could share his [Bartok’s] lifelong gusto for his native folklore … I couldn’t help regretting it in the great musician”.

Bartók was of course absolutely right. Musicologists have since identified at least a dozen  derivations from folk music, including a Lithuanian wedding song used for the opening bassoon solo which had so exasperated Saint-Saëns. It seems that Stravinsky tried to distance himself from the Rite’s folkloric origins: The Rite of Spring as sui generis, without precedent, without peer, revealed to him in a dream. Maybe it didn’t occur to him that Bartók was paying him the highest of compliments.

Kevin Painting

Published 23 March 2015 on primephonic