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The Rite of Spring Project

Saturday, November 17, 2007 at 7 PM

By Steven Ledbetter

Notes on the Program

IGOR STRAVINSKY Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)

Born June 17, 1882, in Oranienbaum, Russia; died April 6, 1971, in New York.

Commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev in 1911 and composed between mid-1911 and early 1913, The Rite of Spring was first performed in Paris on May 29, 1913, with the orchestra of the Ballets Russes conducted by Pierre Monteux. The work received its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall on January 31, 1924, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Monteux.

Scoring: 5 flutes (including piccolo and alto flute), 5 oboes (including 2 English horns), 5 clarinets (including E-flat and bass clarinets), 5 bassoons (including 2 contrabassoons), 8 horns (including 2 “Wagner tubas”), 5 trumpets (including bass trumpet), 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani and a large battery of percussion, and strings.

The first image for the single most influential composition of the 20th century came to Stravinsky while he was composing The Firebird for the Russian Ballet of the impresario Serge Diaghilev, a troupe that was enjoying great success in Paris. Diaghilev was on the lookout for fresh material from Russia to follow up his first successes. He had heard a short orchestral work by the young Stravinsky (who was still in his mid-20s) and took a chance on him. The results were sensational. Not only was The Firebird the greatest hit the Russians had yet enjoyed, it was the first step to The Rite of Spring, which, when it was produced in 1913, changed everything.

At the time, most listeners—whether they were shocked or enthralled by the piece—would probably have said that it was notorious for its new and dissonant harmonies. And, indeed, Stravinsky dared to offer complicated combinations of pitches never heard before. And both listeners and theorists often argued about harmony, both because of the great amount of dissonance and the fact that pieces often ended without unwinding to a more relaxing consonant final sound.

Today, nearly a century later, we are more likely to feel that the real revolution in The Rite of Spring was the rhythm. Harmonies have turned harsher or sweeter at various times over the years. But few composers have been unchanged after hearing Stravinsky’s rhythms—varied, flexible, and often completely unpredictable. (Even when they seem to be “straight,” you just know that there is a surprise lurking around the next measure.)

While he was composing The Firebird, Stravinsky had suddenly a visual idea, a scene of pagan ritual in which a chosen sacrificial virgin danced herself to death. Naturally such an image invites the creation of a ballet to bring the dance to life. Diaghilev loved the idea and told Stravinsky to go ahead.

As it happened, his composition was interrupted by another image, about a sassy yet sad little puppet from Russian street fairs—Petrushka. But once the puppet had been made into a ballet, and it had been premiered (with great success), Stravinsky turned back to his images of ancient Russia.

Stravinsky invented the ritual that he presents in The Rite of Spring. There was no ancient tradition in which a young maiden would be chosen to dance to her death. But there is no question that the idea makes for a lively stage picture!

When he started composing, Stravinsky worked at the piano and played the music as it came to him, working it out in his head and his fingers. But it was so unusual, so irregular in its rhythms, that at first he could not even figure out how to write it down. It was so different from his earlier work that he told a friend, “It was as if 20 and not two years had passed since The Firebird was composed.”

The dancers and the orchestra both had to learn how to perform this daring, incomprehensible new work. And the first paying audience evidently hated it—the premiere was one of the greatest scandals in the history of music. At the dress rehearsal, attended by a large crowd of invited musicians (including Debussy and Ravel) and critics, everything had gone smoothly. But at the performance, the noise in the audience began almost as soon as the music started—a few catcalls, then more and more. Stravinsky left the hall early, in a rage: “I have never again been that angry. The music was so familiar to me; I loved it, and I could not understand why people who had not heard it wanted to protest in advance.”

After the performance, Stravinsky related, they were “excited, angry, disgusted, and ... happy.” Years later Stravinsky suspected Diaghilev of having foreseen the possibility of such a scandal—and perhaps even have helped it along. A riot like that was worth more than any paid advertising.

Probably no single work written in the 20th century so profoundly affected the art of music as The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s advanced, dissonant harmonies attract the most attention at first, but it is the rhythms that continue to challenge and inspire. In one blow, Stravinsky destroyed the “tyranny of the bar line” that had locked so much romantic music into a rhythmic straitjacket. From 1913 on, new rhythmic possibilities were developed by composers of all types, and the results are apparent in a large part of the music of the last 95 years.

Some of the big moments in The Rite of Spring are built up from simultaneous ostinato patterns, overlapping in different lengths, piled up one on top of the other (these contrasting but simultaneous rhythms were choreographed, in the original production, by different groups of dancers, bringing a correspondence between aural and visual elements). The “Procession of the Wise Elder” is such an example—an overwhelming maelstrom of sound coming to a sudden stop at the soft, subdued chords accompanying the “Adoration of the Earth.” The musical “primitivism” cultivated by many composers ranging from Prokofiev to Carl Orff would be unthinkable without The Rite of Spring.

Stravinsky insisted that this work was created with no system, no analytic framework. “I had only my ear to help me. I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which The Rite of Spring passed.”

Stravinsky himself wrote an outline of the ballet, which is here slightly abbreviated:

The Rite of Spring represents pagan Russia and is unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of creative power of spring. The piece has no plot, but the choreographic succession is as follows:


The spring celebration. The pipers pipe and young men tell fortunes. An old woman enters; she knows the mystery of nature and how to predict the future. Young girls with painted faces come in from the river in single file. They dance the spring dance. Games start. The spring Khorovod [a stately round dance]. The people divide into two groups opposing each other. The holy procession of the wise elders. The oldest and wisest interrupts the spring games. The people pause trembling as the old men bless the earth. The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it.


At night the virgins hold mysterious games, walking in circles. One of the virgins is chosen as the victim, being caught twice in the perpetual circle. The virgins honor her with a marital dance. They invoke the ancestors and entrust the chosen one to the old wise men. She performs the great sacrificial dance in the presence of the elders until she collapses.

Today, The Rite of Spring remains one of the most exciting and vivid musical creations of all time. It no longer scandalizes us, but few listeners can avoid being carried away in its glorious sonic whirlwind.

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Copyright © 2007 by The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Steven Ledbetter, musicologist and program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1998, writes and lectures widely on many aspects of classical music.

© 2001–2007 Carnegie Hall Corporation