Century of the Rite

I have two indelible memories pertaining to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The first is an unquestionably embarrassing one. I was working on my first, flawed orchestra piece at a summer music festival and was showing my bare-bones sketches to our composition teacher there. At that point, those sketches consisted mostly of thematic ideas placed on the nearest convenient staff—there was little to no orchestrational thinking present at all, and what was there was pretty boilerplate. I fully intended to get around to fixing that eventually, but that didn’t stop the teacher from launching into a diatribe about creative orchestration that reached its apex with him singing to me that famous high bassoon melody that inaugurates the Rite: you know, daaah-dee-dee-dee-dah-dah-dah-daaaaah. I don’t know if it was the stress of the situation or his off-key singing, but I didn’t recognize the reference and stared at him blankly. The next day he told the assembled composition class that “a certain student from a prominent music school” didn’t know The Rite of Spring, in order to make some kind of point—I forget what. He avoided mentioning me by name, but I nonetheless felt humiliated.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always held a little bit of a grudge against Stravinsky’s magnum opus. Because it was true—I didn’t know The Rite of Spring, or at least not as well as I should have. When I finally sat down to really study it, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard this all before. And I guess I had, not just in the piece itself, but in the countless pale reflections that composers all around me seemed to be churning out. As always, I couldn’t fault Stravinsky for the brilliance of his ideas or the unimpeachable precision of his execution, but it didn’t have the earth-shattering impact on me that it seemed to have on so many others. I was puzzled. Maybe I had come to it too late? Maybe it was like The Catcher in the Rye, and you needed to discover it at a certain point in your development to truly appreciate it.

It wasn’t until many years later that I actually came to fully embrace the Rite. I was at a live performance in an outdoor setting in a rural community, and enjoying it immensely. The natural setting, exposed to the elements, seemed particularly appropriate for the more primitivist aspects of the piece. There was a dirt road leading to the parking lot along the right edge of the performance space, and in the midst of the “Danse des adolescentes” (I think), a car drove by, laying on the horn for about five seconds on its way out.

Somehow, that incident made me infinitely more sympathetic to the Rite. I had glimpsed, for a moment, a shadow of the piece’s power to incite riot. There is something permanently radical about it, something deeply unsettling to some people even 100 years later. It serves as a kind of signpost, marking the boundary between the traditional and the avant-garde, and I have the feeling that it will always be there. Musical borders are changing all the time, but Stravinsky may have staked out that territory for good.

Still, a tiny part of me can’t help but resent its place as the piece of the 20th century, because I’m not sure its influence has been an entirely happy one. Some pieces inspire composers to strike out in new directions, but the Rite often seems to have the opposite effect on composers who want to duplicate its brutal majesty. The Rite of Spring has reigned unopposed for a century—maybe it’s time for a transfer of power?

4 thoughts on “Century of the Rite

  1. Kyle Gann

    Interesting take, Isaac. I’ve always thought that practically no one has ever been influenced by the early Stravinsky ballets in the sense of imitating their style, except for perhaps Andre Jolivet and some not-very-well-known French composers. As Andriessen and Schönberger point out, any imitation of Stravinsky was so obvious as to bring instant charges of epigonism. Perhaps if more composers had had the chutzpah to write works in the style of Le Sacre it wouldn’t seem like such an isolated monument. I feel that way about Berio’s Sinfonia as well.

    It seems you and I will both have works on Aron Kallay’s concerts this week. I look forward to hearing yours.

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  2. Gregory Klug

    I think the Rite has some timeless composition lessons to teach. The amazing thing is that in it Stravinsky managed to be both progressive and populist. These are the ingredients for the new masterpiece that would rival the influence of the Rite.

    Reply
  3. Michael Robinson

    This article inspired me to rehear The Rite of Spring fresh, as I have not truly thought of it for years. What immerged for myself in the opening “The Adoration of the Earth” was surprising. More apparent than ever was the depth of Debussy’s influence on Stravinsky, especially the synergistic use of potent ostanati. When the famous corporeal pulse figure appears in the strings for “Augurs of Spring, Dance of the Young Maidens” it struck me: Stravinsky must have been familiar with Golliwoggs’s Cakewalk, which was published several years prior to his revolutionary masterpiece. Both this section of the Rite, and the Debussy piano work are in 2/4 time, with emphatic syncopation. Of course, Stravinsky took this idea of syncopation further, rendering it more complex, and expressively, much more dramatic, but my sense is that the similarities are not a coincidence.

    Another example of how far from the original source a musical inspiration may land occurs with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl From Impanea.” The Brazilian rhythms found in this song launched the rhythmic treatment of the Doors “Break On Through,” as Ray Manzarek has explained.

    Given that Stravinsky’s use of a Lithuanian folk song transcription has been established for the opening utterance by bassoon in The Rite of Spring, has anyone made a comprehensive study of all the Lithuanian and Russian folk songs incorporated in Stravinsky’s music? One would expect that possible extractions are rhythmic, as well as melodic.

    We do know that Stravinsky was steeped in Russian folk culture, and was eager to introduce his experience and knowledge of indigenous Russian music to the Western classical music establishment though new works, even if he downplayed that influence later in life.

    In addition, it appears there were African art exhibitions and African music concerts, both related to French colonies, taking place in Paris years before the Rite of Spring was composed. Is there any record of Stravinsky attending such events?

    One curious Stravinsky anecdote: Mel Powell once related how Stravinsky visited the music department at Yale when he was studying with Paul Hindemith. The Russian master was introduced to the current crop of composition students, and one by one, shook their hands. Mel was astounded that Stravinsky seemed to be sizing up each student, including himself, as if they were potential competitors!

    A colorful place in Los Angeles is the Farmer’s Market, located in Fairfax. Whatever allure this place held was substantially augmented when I learned that both Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg enjoyed shopping there.

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  4. Pingback: Spring Encounters: Isaac Schankler | The Rite of Spring at 100 | Carolina Performing Arts

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