The opening solo of The Rite of Spring hardly needs any introduction, although younger players may not be as familiar with the second—and arguably more difficult—C♭ solo. Stravinsky gives us the tempo of ♩= 50, and while the solo is marked ad lib., this indication mostly applies to the fermata notes at the beginning. Stravinsky gives us incredibly detailed rhythms here, so we need to play them as accurately as possible; if we push or pull too much, the audience will be completely lost in regards to what rhythms we are playing.
Tips for Playing in the Extreme High Register
The two most important things to remember when playing in this register is to remain calm and stay relaxed. When high notes like the opening C4 are difficult to articulate softly, the culprit is usually tightness in the embouchure or throat. To prevent this tightness, it is very important to practice loosening the embouchure and bringing the pitch back up with the air in the upper register (perhaps more so than in any other range of the instrument).1 William Waterhouse even suggests sticking a pencil into one corner of your mouth when practicing in this register, claiming that it will help develop a loosened embouchure that relies more on proper air support.2
I like to start the first C4 from almost nothing and open the sound up with a little vibrato, like a flower breaking through the earth and slowly unfurling.3 Opinions differ as to whether we should articulate the first C4 with or without the tongue, though Waterhouse generally believes that starting with the air can be the best approach in this very high range:
This technique of articulating notes from the abdomen without using the tongue can be useful when extremes of either pianissimo or sforzando attack required; an extreme high note will often speak more readily thus than when articulated with the tongue.4
I find that starting with the air works well if I use the D vent key for the C4 instead of the normal C vent key, but you can also try giving a very slight half-hole with the second finger of the left hand, and then rolling the finger off as you open up the sound. Focus on creating a nice round embouchure while voicing the syllable “OOH”—not “EEE”—and support the note with a highly focused airstream.
Despite the more difficult fingerings it requires, the second Rite solo often has a more open sound quality because the tightness in the throat and embouchure has dissipated by the end of the first solo. To replicate this openness for the first solo, experiment with practicing the two in reverse order. It may seem like a simple, obvious exercise, but you will be surprised at how much of a difference it can make.
C – B – A
The entire opening solo is based on the three descending pitches of C – B – A (and in the second solo, C♭ – B♭ – A♭); this skeletal structure is shown in Example 19.2. Stravinsky always ornaments the Bs with two grace notes, and by doing so highlights this note as the most important of the group. Despite the rhythmic variations of each descending C – B – A statement, the B always acts as a sort of downbeat note. If we were to rewrite each phrase with these perceived bar lines (which would also require removing all meter indications) it would look like Example 19.3. As you can see, this is extremely odd looking, and would be impossible to play in an orchestra. However, this rewriting can be useful in our own private practice, since it is natural to want to lead into the notes on the downbeats, even without a meter specified.
Example 19.2. Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring – mm. 1 to 15, melodic reduction (Level 1)
Example 19.3. Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring – mm. 1 to 5, re-barred music
Many players make the D4 of the second bar the most prominent note of the measure, but as we can see in Example 19.4, this D is actually just prolonging the A. It certainly can be a very problematic note just to get out, but we should keep it from being louder than the overarching C – B – A progression if possible. Instead of slamming into the D just because it’s the highest note of the entire line—and most difficult to get out—I think of it as coming out of the previous A. I find that this approach helps remove some of the physical tension involved in approaching the note, and this relaxation seems to help it speak much more reliably. Also, practice stopping after the A and then singing the following D; internalizing the pitch of the D in this manner will help you play the A – D interval as a true P4.
Slurring down to the G grace note that follows the D can also be problematic, so give the grace note a very light articulation if necessary. First, though, try fingering the G as shown in Fingering 19.2, which is much easier to slur down to from the D above. You may also want to add the B♭ key to the high D so that it will already be down for the G.
Example 19.4. Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring – mm. 1 to 5, melodic reduction (Level 2)
A Few Notes About the Rhythms
As I mentioned earlier, the rhythms in each of these solos should be played as precisely as possible. The rhythm in mm. 4 to 5 of the opening solo is particularly difficult, and requires special attention. Example 19.5 shows an additive practice strategy that is very effective for developing the rhythmic integrity of this figure. I made a couple alterations in the first three instances (Examples 19.5a through 19.5c) that should be incorporated into your practice:
- Tongue the note groupings according to the main beats of the measure
- Instead of a sixteenth note, think of the last C4 as a slightly shorter eighth note (this makes the basic triplet-triplet-duple rhythm identical to what appears in the first two bars of the solo)
- Add a legato marking to the last B♭ in the triplet of bar 4 (Example 19.5c)
I think adding the grace notes before the triplet sixteenth notes is a better approach here—just think of the G and B triplet sixteenths as filling in the space between the second and third notes of the overall triplet. These notes are quicker than many players think, so make sure to practice these sequences with a metronome (set to triplets if possible), and always phrase to the G♭.
Example 19.5. Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring – mm. 4 to 5, practice sequence
Practice the quintuplets in bar 3 without the grace notes as well. There should be no obvious 2+3 or 3+2 subdivision here—just five even notes over the span of one beat. When you add the grace notes back in, make sure they begin soon enough that this evenness is not disturbed. One final note—don’t play the grace notes throughout the solo too fast. They should occur at a speed appropriate to the ♩= 50 tempo.
1 See Breathing and Embouchure for more information.
2 Waterhouse, 108. I have had limited success with this exercise because I am always worried that the pencil will actually hit and break my reed. Others may find it more useful, though.
3 Be careful not to give too much of a swell, however.
4 Waterhouse, 114.