Part One: The Adoration of the Earth (Introduction)
From the summer of 1911 to March 19, 1913; composition took place in Ustilug during the summer months, and at Clarens (on lake Geneva) during the winter months
May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, conducted by Pierre Monteux1 with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky
According to Stravinsky, the idea for The Rite of Spring2 came as a sudden vision while he was working to finish The Firebird. He recalls this moment of inspiration in his 1936 autobiography:
One day, when I was finishing the last pages of L’Oiseau de Feu in St. Petersburg, I had a fleeting vision which came to me as a complete surprise, my mind at the moment being full of other things. I saw in [my] imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched 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. I must confess that this vision made a deep impression on me, and I at once described it to my friend, Nicholas Roerich, he being a painter who had specialized in pagan subjects. He welcomed my inspiration with enthusiasm, and became my collaborator in this creation. In Paris I told Diaghileff about it, and he was at once carried away by the idea, though its realization was delayed by the following events.3
The “following events” Stravinsky refers to were the inception and composition of Petroushka, which would become Stravinsky’s next ballet after The Firebird. Shortly after the premiere of Petroushka, Stravinsky visited Roerich at Princess Tenisheva’s estate at Talashkino (near Smolensk), where his friend was busy painting the interior of the chapel.4 Here, a detailed scenario for the ballet was set (see below), and Stravinsky began composing in earnest at his home in Ustilug that summer.
Although Stravinsky had already completed Part One of Rite by March 1912, Diaghilev decided to postpone the incredibly ambitious production until the following year. This decision was also partly due to a falling out between Diaghilev and Michel Fokine, who had been the choreographer at the Ballet Russes since its inception in 1909. Diaghilev decided that his star dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, would be the best choice to take over choreography duties, but Nijinsky was already engaged throughout 1912 with a production of Debussy’s L'après-midi d'un faune. Upon learning of this postponement, Stravinsky eased his pace of work on Rite (even composing the full score to The King of the Stars during the summer), and finally completed the piece at the end of March 1913.
The conductor of the premiere, Pierre Monteux, first heard Stravinsky play a section of the piano reduction in the summer of 1912. Of the experience, he would later remark:
With only Diaghileff and myself as audience, Stravinsky sat down to play a piano reduction of the entire score. Before he got very far I was convinced he was raving mad. Heard this way, without the color of the orchestra which is one of its greatest distinctions, the crudity of the rhythms was emphasized, its stark primitiveness underlined. The very walls resounded as Stravinsky pounded away, occasionally stamping his feet and jumping up and down to accentuate the force of the music. Not that it needed such emphasis.5
The incredibly complex rhythms of the music were very demanding of the dancers. Ballet Russes stage manager Serge Grigoriev described the final rehearsals leading up to the May 29 premiere:
Even at this stage the rehearsals of [Le Sacre] were far from easy. The company heartily disliked them, calling them arithmetic classes, because owing to the total absence of tune in the music, the dancers had to time their movements by counting the bars. They also saw little point in Nijinsky’s composition, which consisted almost entirely of rhythmical stamping without any other movement… When on his return Diaghilev enquired about Le Sacre and learnt of its enormous unpopularity, he merely remarked that it was an excellent sign. It proved the composition to be strikingly original.6
The premiere of The Rite of Spring is one of the most infamous stories in all of music history, and there are numerous first-hand accounts from eyewitnesses of the spectacle. Grigoriev recalls:
Then, after the first interval the curtain rose on Le Sacre, and not many minutes passed before a section of the audience began shouting its indignation; on which the rest retaliated with loud appeals for order. The hubbub soon became deafening; but the dancers went on, and so did the orchestra, though scarcely a note of the music could be heard. The shouting continued even during the change of scene, for which music was provided; and now actual fighting broke out among some of the spectators; yet even this did not deter Monteux from persisting with the performance… Diaghilev tried every device he could think of to calm the audience, keeping the lights up in the auditorium as long as possible so that the police, who had been called in, could pick out and eject some of the worst offenders. But no sooner were the lights lowered again for the second scene than pandemonium burst out afresh, and then continued till the ballet come to an end.7
Stravinsky provides an even more animated account in his 1936 autobiography:
As for the actual performance, I am not in a position to judge, as I left the auditorium at the first bars of the prelude, which had at once evoked derisive laughter. I was disgusted. These demonstrations, at first isolated, soon became general, provoking counter-demonstrations and very quickly developing into a terrific uproar. During the whole performance I was at Nijinsky’s side in the wings. He was standing on a chair, screaming “sixteen, seventeen, eighteen” – they had their own method of counting to keep time.8 Naturally the poor dancers could hear nothing by reason of the row in the auditorium and the sound of their own dance steps. I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes, for he was furious, and ready to dash on to the stage at any moment and create a scandal. Diaghileff kept ordering the electricians to turn the lights on or off, hoping in that way to put a stop to the noise. That is all I can remember about that first performance. Oddly enough, at the dress rehearsal, to which he had, as usual, invited a number of actors, painters, musicians,9 writers, and the most cultured representatives of society, everything had gone off peacefully, and I was very far from expecting such an outburst.10
Interestingly, while Grigoriev implicates that the music itself was the impetus for the crowd’s rebellion, Stravinsky would later place the blame squarely on Nijinsky’s choreography:
The scandal which it produced is a matter of history, but that scandal was in nowise due to the so-called novelty of the performance, but to a gesture, too audacious and too intimate, which Nijinsky made, doubtless thinking that anything was permissible with an erotic subject and perhaps wishing thereby to enhance the effect of the production.11
After his initial meetings with Stravinsky in the spring of 1911, Roerich sent the following outline to Diaghilev:
In the ballet of The Rite of Spring as conceived by myself and Stravinsky, my object is to present a number of scenes of earthly joy and celestial triumph as understood by the Slavs… My intention is that the first set should transport us to the foot of a sacred hill, in a lush plain, where Slavonic tribes are gathered together to celebrate the spring rites. In this scene there is an old witch, who predicts the future, a marriage by capture, round dances. Then comes the most solemn moment. The wise elder is brought from the village to imprint his sacred kiss on the new-flowering earth. During this rite the crowd is seized with mystic terror… After this uprush of terrestrial joy, the second scene sets a celestial mystery upon us. Young virgins dance in circles on the sacred hill amid enchanted rocks; then they choose the victim they intend to honor. In a moment she will dance her last dance before the ancients clad in bearskins to show that the bear was man’s ancestor. Then the graybeards dedicate the victim to the god Yarilo.12
Stravinsky drew upon a vast collection of Russian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian folk songs for the melodic content of Rite.13 The opening bassoon solo was taken from a Lithuanian folk song titled “Tu, manu seserėlė,”14 which Stravinsky presents in a variety of rhythms and ornamented with grace notes. The original melody is shown in Example 19.1.
Example 19.1. "Tu, manu seserėlė"
Of the opening, Stravinsky writes, “My idea was that the Prelude should represent the awakening of nature, the scratching, gnawing, wiggling of birds and beasts.”15 Giving this extremely high solo to the bassoon, rather than, say, the English horn, certainly creates this “scratching, gnawing” image. Parisian critic Georges Pioch, who attended The Rite’s preview performance, provides an anecdote about the opening solo that probably echoed many concertgoers’ confusion:
You hear the prelude, where a wind instrument is dominant. We ask each other, which instrument can produce such sounds. I reply: ‘This is an oboe.’ But my neighbor to the right, who is a great composer, assures me that it is a muted trumpet. My neighbor to the left, no less learned in music, opines: ‘I would rather think that it is a clarinet.’ During the intermission we ask the conductor himself, and we learn that it was the bassoon that put us in such great doubt.16
1 A recording of Monteux conducting the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra is included.
2 According to Stravinsky, the title The Coronation of Spring would actually be a much better English translation for Le sacre du Printemps (Expositions and Developments, 141).
3 Stravinsky, An Autobiography, 31.
4 Stephen Walsh,"Stravinsky, Igor," In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/52818pg3 (accessed January 29, 2012).
5 Truman C. Bullard, The First Performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps (Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms, 1980), 11.
6 Grigoriev, 81.
7 Ibid., 83-84.
8 Keep in mind that Russian numbers over ten are polysyllabic, making it even more difficult to keep up with the pace of the music.
9 One such musician in attendance at the dress rehearsal was Claude Debussy. It is also worth noting that the famous story of Saint-Saëns walking out of the premiere is inaccurate; Stravinsky himself confirms that it was actually the first performance of 1914 at the Casino de Paris that Saint-Saëns attended (Stravinsky, however, does not specifically refute the claim that he walked out of this performance, leaving that aspect of the original story unclear.)
10 Stravinsky, 47.
11 Ibid., 36.
12 Downes, 937.
13 Craft, Stravinsky: Glimpses of a Life, 214.
14 Richard Taruskin, “Russian Folk Melodies in ‘The Rite of Spring’” Journal of the American Musicological Society 33, no. 3 (Autumn 1980): 502.
15 Stravinsky and Craft, Expositions and Developments, 141.
16 Slonimsky, 319.