One of the cultural landmarks of the 20th Century, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, turned 100 just two days ago.
And what a cataclysmic birth it was! The equivalent of an earthquake, a volcano, a revolution, all happening at once. The Rite is a 35-minute ballet/orchestral work first performed in a Paris theater May 29, 1913, choreographed by legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, who was a member of Sergei Diaghilev’s famed Russian Ballet.
The music and the style of dancing were so shockingly new the audience erupted into pandemonium. At first there was derisive laughter, boos, jeers, then audience members began throwing things at each other before tossing things at the orchestra. Forty people had to be ejected from the theater. The audience uproar was so loud the music could not be heard.
The near riot should have been expected because the Rite jabs listeners like a jolt of disturbing adrenalin.
Stravinsky, like Picasso, was one of the giant masters of modernism. He had created a kind of musical equivalent of Picasso’s cubist paintings, a radically new way of expressing a multiplicity of visual and psychological realities. Picasso ripped reality apart and reassembled it in stunning new ways. Stravinsky did the same thing – only in music. The Rite chugs along like some thrashing, wounded, hideous beast. It has a primitive, elemental, violent feel to it with its weird syncopations, ferocious dissonances, eerie creepy-crawly rhythms, swooning meanderings, relentless stompings and poundings, gnome-like grunts and squeaks, eruptive crescendos, dizzying pirouettes, whispery warnings, blaring alarms, gyrations and spasms, shattering explosions and the strange beauty of the delicate little melodies that weave in and out of the chaos. The Rite is disturbing music. Its cataclysmic, frightening sounds conjure images of violence and war, as if Stravinsky was expressing, musically, the horrors that were to come in the 20th Century. World War I started less than a year after Rite was first performed.
In making his masterpiece, Stravinsky used bits and pieces of Russian folk music, then remade them radically into the Rite. The work is based on pagan rituals to welcome spring, including the tribal selection of a young girl as a sacrificial victim, who then has to dance herself to death as the tribal elders watch.
Many people might be familiar with The Rite of Spring from having seen Fantasia, the groundbreaking Walt Disney film of 1940. Disney expertly chose selections from the ballet score to use with his visual evocation of the earth’s beginnings, ending with the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Almost like a virus, the Rite has “infected” countless pieces of modern music, including background music for movies and TV shows. The ballet’s syncopated stomping sounds are often used to evoke suspense in crime shows. The brassy dissonances in Rite have been mimicked to express a sense of emotional crisis in many movies. It’s possible to hear echoes of Rite and two earlier Stravinsky works (Firebird and Petrouchka) in movies as varied as The Wizard of Oz, Psycho and Spartacus.
I must hasten to add, dear readers, that even though the Rite is a brooding, strange, disturbing work, it’s also exhilarating in its sheer power and eerie beauty. It still sounds amazingly modern, as if it were composed just yesterday.
On YouTube, there are a number of videos of orchestras performing The Rite of Spring, and there are even various versions of the ballet being performed, so you can watch the dancers while you hear the music. It’s a very great musical landmark so, please, do check it out.