The composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein said of one passage, "That page is sixty years old, but it's never been topped for sophisticated handling of primitive rhythms...", and of the work as a whole, "...it's also got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms and whatever else you care to name."
While the Russian title literally means "Sacred Spring", the English title is based on the French title under which the work was premiered, although sacre is more precisely translated as "consecration". It has the subtitle "Pictures from Pagan Russia" (French: Tableaux de la Russie païenne).
The painter Nicholas Roerich shared his idea with Stravinsky in 1923, his fleeting vision of a pagan ritual in which a young girl dances herself to death. Stravinsky's earliest conception of The Rite of Spring was in the spring of 1910. Stravinsky writes, "... there arose a picture of a sacred pagan ritual: the wise elders are seated in a circle and are observing the dance before death of the girl whom they are offering as a sacrifice to the god of Spring in order to gain his benevolence. This became the subject of The Rite of Spring."
While composing The Firebird, Stravinsky began forming sketches and ideas for the piece, enlisting the help of Roerich. Though he was sidetracked for a year while he worked on Petrushka (which he intended to be a light burlesque as a relief from the orchestrally intense work already in progress), The Rite of Spring was composed between 1912 and 1913 for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Roerich was an integral part of the creation of the work, drawing from scenes of historical rites for inspiration; Stravinsky referred to the work-in-progress as "our child".
The premiere involved one of the most famous classical music riots in history. The intensely rhythmic score and primitive scenario shocked audiences more accustomed to the demure conventions of classical ballet. Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography was a radical departure from classical ballet. Stravinsky would later write in his autobiography of the process of working with Nijinsky on the choreography, stating that "the poor boy knew nothing of music" and that Nijinsky "had been saddled with a task beyond his capacity." While Stravinsky praised Nijinsky's amazing dance talent, he was frustrated working with him on choreography.
This frustration was reciprocated by Nijinsky with regard to Stravinsky's patronizing attitude: "...so much time is wasted as Stravinsky thinks he is the only one who knows anything about music. In working with me he explains the value of the black notes, the white notes, of quavers and semiquavers, as though I had never studied music at all... I wish he would talk more about his music for Sacre, and not give a lecture on the beginning theory of music."
The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start, the audience began to boo loudly. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance. Fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the première allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet's opening bars (though Stravinsky later said "I do not know who invented the story that he was present at, but soon walked out of, the premiere.") .
Stravinsky ran backstage, where Diaghilev was turning the lights on and off in an attempt to try to calm the audience. Nijinsky stood on a chair, leaned out (far enough that Stravinsky had to grab his coat-tail), and shouted counts to the dancers, who were unable to hear the orchestra (this was challenging because Russian numbers above ten are polysyllabic, such as eighteen: vosemnadsat vs. seventeen: semnadstat).
Although Nijinsky and Stravinsky were despondent, Diaghilev (a Russian art critic as well as the ballet's impresario) commented that the scandal was "just what I wanted".
Some scholars have questioned the traditional account, particularly concerning the extent to which the riot was caused by the music, rather than by the choreography and/or the social and political circumstances. Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin has written an article about the premiere, entitled "A Myth of the Twentieth Century," in which he attempts to demonstrate that the traditional story of the music provoking unrest was largely concocted by Stravinsky himself in the 1920s after he had published the score. At that later date, Stravinsky was constructing an image of himself as an innovative composer to promote his music, and he revised his accounts of the composition and performances of The Rite of Spring to place a greater emphasis on a break with musical traditions and to encourage a focus on the music itself in concert performances. Once the music became popular, later writers appropriated Stravinsky's version of events. Taruskin summarizes how unimportant the music apparently was to most of the audience at the premiere:
In 1913 [the music] was not the primary object of attention. The most cursory perusal of the Paris reviews of the original production, conveniently collected in Truman C. Bullard's dissertation, reveals that it was the now-forgotten Nijinsky choreography, far more than Stravinsky's music, that fomented the famous "riot" at the premiere. Many if not most reviews fail to deal with Stravinsky's contribution at all beyond naming him as composer. And, as most memoirs of the premiere . . . agree, a lot of the music went unheard, which did not dissuade the protesters in the least.
The ballet completed its run of six performances amid controversy  , but experienced no further disruption. The same performers gave a production of the work in London later the same year. And when the following year saw the first concert (i.e. non-staged) performance of the work given in Paris, Stravinsky was afterwards carried through the streets on the shoulders of a cheering crowd. The United States premiere was in 1924 in a concert version.
The Rite is divided into two parts with the following scenes (there are many different English translations of the original titles; the ones given are Stravinsky's preferred wording followed by the original French in parenthesis):
Mystic Circle of the Young Girls (Cercles Mystérieux des Adolescentes)
The Naming and Honoring of the Chosen One (Glorification de l'Élue)
Evocation of the Ancestors OR Ancestral Spirits (Evocation des Ancêtres)
Ritual Action of the Ancestors (Action Rituelle des Ancêtres)
Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One) (Danse Sacrale (L'Élue))
Though the melodies draw upon folk-like themes designed to evoke the feeling of songs passed down from ancient time, the only tune Stravinsky acknowledged to be directly drawn from previously existing folk melody is the opening, first heard played by the solo bassoon. Several other themes, however, have been shown to have a striking similarity to folk tunes appearing in the Juskiewicz anthology of Lithuanian folk songs.
Stravinsky's music is harmonically adventurous, with prominent use of dissonance for the purposes of color and musical energy. Rhythmically, it is similarly adventurous, a number of sections having constantly changing time signatures and off-beat accents. Stravinsky used asymmetrical rhythms, percussive dissonance, polyrhythms, polytonality, layering of ostinati (persistently repeated ideas) and melodic fragments to create complex webs of interactive lines, and is influenced by primitivism (specifically, West African tribal art). An example of primitivism can be seen below (from the opening of the final section, the "Sacrificial Dance"):
Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, "Sacrificial Dance" Play (help·info)
According to George Perle (1977 quoted in 1990), the "intersecting of inherently non-symmetrical diatonic elements with inherently non-diatonic symmetrical elements seems... the defining principle of the musical language of Le Sacre and the source of the unparalleled tension and conflicted energy of the work". This idea is elaborated more fully by Van Den Toorn, who gives a detailed analysis of the pitch structure of the piece in terms of diatonically derived tetrachords intersecting with symmetrical 'partitions' of the octatonic scale.
Like the symmetrical partitioning of the twelve-tone scale in Le Sacre, the work's diatonicism may be explained in terms of interval cycles more simply and coherently than in terms of traditional modes or major and minor scales. With the single exception of interval[-class] 5, every interval[-class] from 1 through 6 partitions an octave into equal segments. A seven-note segment of the interval-5 cycle [C5], telescoped into the compass of an octave, divides the octave into unequal intervals: 'whole-steps' and 'half-steps'".
Example: The last few bassoon solo measures from the main theme from the Introduction, preceded by the head motif, transcribed to treble clef.
The boundary of what Perle considers the principal theme from the Introduction, following the solo bassoon head motif in measures 1-3, is a symmetrical tritone divided by minor thirds, making an interval-3 cycle (C 3) (p. 19). Like Edgard Varèse's Density 21.5, "it partitioned the interval of a tritone into two minor thirds and differentiated these by twice filling in the span of the upper third--first chromatically and then with a single passing note--and leaving the lower third open". The theme repeats "truncated" in 7-9, the head motif only in 13, and then fully, transposed down a half step, fifty three measures later, 66, at the end of the movement with "(c-flat)-(b-flat)-(a-flat) instead of the head motif's c-b-a" (p. 81-82).
Like Density 21.5, it "implies the complete representation of each partition of the C3 interval cycle." C30 begins in the head motif's c-b-a and is completed by the main theme which immediately follows (see example above). However, "the otherwise atonal C 3 cycle is initiated by a minor third that is plainly diatonic and tonal" (p. 83). Thus The Rite of Spring has something in common with No. 33 of Béla Bartók's 44 Violin Duets, "Song of the Harvest", which, "juxtaposes tonal and atonal interpretations of the same perfect-4th tetrachord" (p. 86).
The enduring celebrity of The Rite of Spring is partly due to its constant discussion and analysis by musicologists and music theorists. Allen Forte, Pierre Boulez and Van den Toorn have given analyses of the work's structure in terms of abstract relations of rhythm and pitch, arguing for a modernist understanding of its musical language. On the other hand, Richard Taruskin's monumental study of Stravinsky's early music gives an explanation of the musical characteristics as fundamentally and directly derived from Russian folk music. American composer and parodist Peter Schickele said in a radio broadcast in the 1990s that The Rite of Spring had such a profound effect on composition that virtually all subsequent 20th century music could be said to be “The Rewrite of Spring”.
The Rite of Spring is scored for an unusually large orchestra consisting of the following:
Stravinsky scored the instruments of the orchestra in unusual sounding registers in the Rite of Spring, often emulating the strained sounds of untrained village voices. An instance of this is heard in the very opening bassoon solo which reaches to the highest notes of the instrument's range. The composer also called for instruments that, before the Rite of Spring, had rarely been scored for in orchestral music, including the alto flute, piccolo trumpet, bass trumpet, Wagner tuba, and güiro. The use of these instruments, combined with the aforementioned manipulation of instrumental registers, gave the piece a distinctive sound.
Stravinsky composed a piano four-hands version before finishing the orchestral score. The composer was continually revising the work for both musical and practical reasons, even after the premiere and well into ensuing years. The transcription for piano four-hands was performed with Debussy; since Stravinsky composed the Rite, as with his other works, at the piano, it is natural that he worked on the piano version of the work concurrently with the full orchestral score. It was in this form that the piece was first published (in 1913, the full score not being published until 1921 by Editions Russe de Musique). Owing to the disruption caused by World War I, there were few performances of the work in the years following its composition, which made this arrangement the predominant version by which the piece gained public exposure. This version is still performed quite frequently, as it does not require the massive forces of the full orchestral version.
Stravinsky also made two arrangements of the The Rite of Spring for player piano. In late 1915, the Aeolian Company in London asked for permission to issue both the Rite and Petrushka on piano roll, and by early 1918 the composer had made several sketches to be used in the more complex passages. Again owing to the war, the work of transcribing the rolls dragged on, and only the Rite was ever issued by Aeolian on standard pianola rolls, and this not until late 1921, by which time Stravinsky had completed a far more comprehensive re-composition of the work for the Pleyela, the brand of player piano manufactured by Pleyel in Paris.
The Pleyela/pianola master rolls were not recorded using a "recording piano" played by a performer in real time, but were instead true "pianola" rolls, cut mechanically/graphically, free from any constraints imposed by the ability of the player. Musicologist William Malloch observed that on these rolls the final section is at a considerably faster tempo, relative to the rest of the composition, than in the generally used orchestral score. Malloch opines—based upon this evidence, the composer's revisions of the orchestral score, and a limited number of very early phonographic recordings of performances—that Stravinsky originally intended the faster tempo, but found that significant numbers of orchestral players at the time were simply unable to manage the rhythmic complexity of the section at that tempo, and accordingly revised the tempo markings. The Zander recording includes both the pianola version, and the orchestral Rite with the faster tempo restored to the final section. A low-fidelity recording is available here.
Reconstruction of ballet
Although Nijinsky's choreography was poorly preserved, this choreography and Roerich's costuming and set design were reconstructed in 1987 by dance historian Millicent Hodson, art historian Kenneth Archer, and choreographer Robert Joffrey, for performance by the Joffrey Ballet. The piece premiered in Los Angeles, and in 1990, Joffrey's reconstruction was televised as part of the Dance in America/Great Performances series on PBS. Hodson's reconstructed version of Nijinsky's "Sacre" has since been added to the repertory of the Mariinsky Theatre Ballet Company (formerly the Kirov) of St. Petersburg, Russia and has been filmed by that company and released on video.
Influence on dance
The music is used as a standard of dance troupes around the world, including for choreography by Pina Bausch and Sir Kenneth MacMillan. Different from the long and graceful lines of traditional ballet, arms and legs were sharply bent in Nijinsky's choreography. The dancers danced more from their pelvis than their feet, a style that later influenced Martha Graham. The "anti-ballet" aspects of the Nijinsky choreography (body components curled inward not opened outward, body pulled down not lifted up, steps heavy not light, focus on grotesqueness not elegance) as well as the controversial, violent, pagan, or primitivist thematic material, greatly influenced Tatsumi Hijikata and Tamano method Butoh.
The Rite of Spring was further popularized through Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940), an animatedfeature film in which original animated images and stories were combined with works of classical music. The Rite of Spring is the fourth piece in the film's program, illustrated by "a pageant, as the story of the growth of life on Earth" according to the narration read by Deems Taylor. The sequence depicts the evolution of life on earth, from the beginning of simple life forms up to the dinosaurs and their eventual destruction. The original score of Stravinsky's work was edited for its use in Fantasia. Part I was considerably shortened and the opening bassoon solo was repeated at the end.
Stravinsky's own 1961 recording of the work for Columbia Records included liner notes by him, transcribed from an interview for which the audio still exists. Therein, he stated that he received $1,200 (his share of a total $5,000) for the use of his music in the film, explaining that since his music was not copyrighted for use in the USA it could be used regardless of whether he granted permission or not, but that Disney wished to show the film in other countries. In order for the music to follow the animated story concerned, much of Part I either was omitted entirely or was moved to, or repeated at, the end. Stravinsky described the performance as "execrable" and thought the segment as a whole "involved a dangerous misunderstanding".
Pierre Monteux conducting the "Grand Orchestre Symphonique," Disque Gramophone, recorded 1929 (premier recording)
Stravinsky's 1940 recording is considered by many musicologists to be the definitive recording. Stravinsky reportedly greeted Leonard Bernstein's 1958 recording with the one-word reaction, "Wow!" In a detailed review of Herbert von Karajan's 1964 recording, Stravinsky described it as "generally odd, though polished in its own way; in fact, too polished, a pet savage rather than a real one." Further he observed, "There are simply no regions for soul-searching in The Rite of Spring."
^Radio Lab, Show 202: "Musical Language", New York: WNYC (21 April 2006). Host/Producer: Jad Abumrad, Co-Host: Robert Krulwich, Producer: Ellen Horne, Production Executives: Dean Capello and Mikel Ellcessor.
^ Modris Eksteins challenges this interpretation, claiming that this was because of the difficult choreography and the unconventional rhythm of the music, adding that he was simply continuing what he had always done in practice. Eksteins adds that the story was later embellished by Stravinsky himself and Jean Cocteau to enhance the mystique of this legendary performance. (Eksteins 1989, 12).
^ Richard Taruskin, "A Myth of the Twentieth Century: The Rite of Spring, the Tradition of the New, and 'The Music Itself,'" Modernism/Modernity 2.1 (1995): 16.
Hill, Peter. 2000. Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-62221-2.
Hodson, Millicent. 1996. Nijinsky's Crime Against Grace: Reconstruction ofthe Original Choreography for Le sacre du printemps. Pendragon Press. ISBN 0-945193-43-2
Perle, George. 1977. "Berg's Master Array of Interval Cycles". Musical Quarterly 63:1–30. Reprinted in Perle, The Right Notes: Twenty-Three Selected Essays by George Perle on Twentieth-Century Music, 207–35. Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1995.
Perle, George. 1990. The Listening Composer. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-06991-9.
Scheurer, Timothy E. 1997. "John Williams and Film Music Since 1971—Composer". Popular Music and Society (Spring):
Stravinsky, Igor. 1998. An Autobiography. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-31856-2 (Originally published: New York:Simon & Schuster, 1936; first published as a Norton paperback 1962.)
Stravinsky, Igor, and Robert Craft. 1962. Expositions and Developments. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-04403-7
Taruskin, Richard. 1996. Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works through Mavra. 2 vols. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-07099-2.
Van den Toorn, Pieter C. 1987. Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring: The Beginnings of a Musical Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-315331-9; Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-05958-1full text
Yarustovsky, Boris Mikhailovich. 1965. Foreword to an edition of the orchestral score. Moscow: Izd. "Muzyka". English translation, New York: Dover Publications, 1989; ISBN 0-486-25857-2.