More Than 100 Years After its Premiere, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring Continues to Inspire

Listen Magazine   More Than 100 Years After its Premiere, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring Continues to Inspire
Composers from Debussy to Dalbavie, from Messiaen to the minimalists, from Xenakis to Zhurbin, have taken inspiration from the score.
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They all yelled. Then they went home to bed, and afterward it was another day. But the storm of that night—May 29, 1913—was to rage through the continuing life of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and it has gone on raging through the art of music ever since.

Hours after the premiere, Claude Debussy wrote to his younger colleague and assistant, André Caplet, that Stravinsky’s new score was “extraordinarily wild.” And Debussy may have been the first composer to directly reference that wildness in a work of his own. His children’s ballet La boîte à joujoux, which he wrote during the next few months, wittily trivialized in its little soldiers’ march what comes as the first flood of rampant pulsation in The Rite: the “Augurs of Spring” episode. Eighty-eight years later, in 2001, another French composer, Marc-André Dalbavie, seized on the same sequence, including the memento in the middle of his orchestral piece Color.

It is not just as a source of quotations, however, that Stravinsky’s work has loomed through the music of the last hundred years. Maurice Ravel, like Debussy, was aware of The Rite as it came into being; both composers listened to Stravinsky pound out the music at the piano as he was finishing the orchestration. From Ravel we also have a letter from the time of the premiere, but a little before, urging a publisher friend to get to this first performance because it was sure to be a momentous occasion. Ravel, who was there himself, was the first to listen through the thumping rhythms of The Rite to hear its smoky harmonies. These harmonies inspired results in Ravel’s next ballet score that were very different from Debussy’s little soldiers: like The Rite, Ravel’s La Valse accumulates tension to the point where it snaps in a final dance of death.

Differing results are almost inevitable for any productive engagement with the Stravinsky piece, for The Rite of Spring, like few other works of music—one exception being an exact contemporary, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire—is so completely itself that anything immediately influenced by it is going to sound like imitation or caricature (a tone Debussy made work to his advantage). That was the problem Sergei Prokofiev found when he returned to the scene of the crime—primeval Russia—to create his Ala and Lolli. As Sergei Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes impresario who had produced and helped foment the outraged reaction to The Rite, recognized when he rejected Prokofiev’s score, you could not pull the same trick—or hope for the same scandal—twice over. Prokofiev recast his music as a concert piece under a new title, Scythian Suite, but it still sounds like the The Rite’s noisy younger brother. Edgard Varèse got away with drawing close to Stravinsky’s work in Amériques, but only by drumming away in an even more single-minded manner, within his own exotic modal system and with still more dissonant harmonies. Stravinsky himself never came near making the mistake of trying to reenter the world of The Rite; it was as if the work’s closing “Sacrificial Dance” had, for him, simultaneously set forth a colossal war of jutting motifs and staunched any possibility of coming back for more.

For one thing, the work’s element of savagery became an embarrassment to the composer once he had entered the brightly lit world of neoclassicism, where he arrived just seven years later, with the first performance of Pulcinella. When Stravinsky took up his most celebrated score again in later years—to reframe the notation or to conduct a performance, as he did for three commercial recordings—it was in a spirit of refinement and clarification. But also, The Rite had actualized the death throes of the large orchestra that helped provide its stomping power. With its eight horns and its variegated assembly of woodwinds, this was the orchestra of Mahler and Richard Strauss, a convocation that had no place in the leaner, sprucer times that followed World War I—except with Varèse, who had little tolerance for practicality.

The Rite did not, however, lack for progeny during that period when, the first shock over, many composers—Stravinsky included—began to consider what the work had let loose. For the author himself, there were at least two areas available for further development, without repeating what he had done in the original work. One was that of irregular accents, whether achieved by means of rapidly changing meters or of strong impulses on weak beats, both of which were just as effective in songs and slimline piano pieces as they had been when enforced by the clamorous resources of The Rite. The other was crosscut form—music switching back and forth between different kinds of material, just as a film (and this could well have been where the idea came from) might alternate between different takes. While, during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, Stravinsky traveled through musical history in search of models, these basic principles of rhythm and structure, emanating from The Rite and Petrushka, stayed with him—as was acidly observed by Prokofiev, who found even the delightful and crazy finale of his elder compatriot’s Violin Concerto no more than a pale reflection of The Rite.

Meanwhile, many of Stravinsky’s leading contemporaries were, like Ravel, drawing other lessons from the score. Though senior figures in Germany and Austria were impervious—neither the music nor the correspondence of Strauss or Schoenberg betrays any hint that anything of note had happened in Paris that night—The Rite was establishing itself for others as inescapable fact. Perhaps most remarkably, Bartók—in 1920, when he knew the work only from the four-hand piano score—discerned an aspect Stravinsky was not so ready to admit: how the piece “develops from the pure folk music of [his] country to such an extent that the former can be considered almost an apotheosis of the latter.” This was more true than Bartók could have known, as the full scale of Stravinsky’s use of Russian and Lithuanian melodies did not begin to come to light until Lawrence Morton published his study in 1979. Working on educated intuition, Bartók found in The Rite a decisive model at this crucial point when he was scrambling to understand how his music could be simultaneously Hungarian and modern, rooted in the modal features of folk music and thoroughly chromatic. It was no accident that in 1918–19 he had drafted a ballet score himself, The Miraculous Mandarin, founded on pulsing rhythms, an eruption of animal energy and the final demise of the principal character.

But while Bartók looked for the ethnic essence of The Rite, many more composers of the time heard the work as the apotheosis not of Russian folk music but of brute pulse, of rapid, regular beats with little metrical distinction between strong and weak. Almost everybody fell for this: Bartók himself, Prokofiev (the finale of his Seventh Piano Sonata provides a classic example of this motor rhythm), Hindemith, Shostakovich and on down to the minimalists and postminimalists of recent decades, as well as the futurists of the 1920s, who found in Stravinsky’s pagan Slav scenes the image of machine music.

The four-hand piano arrangement may, here, have skewed the piece’s reception. It was the only edition available until the full score was published, in 1921, and there seem to have been few performances after the Ballets Russes run in Paris and London through the summer of 1913. The work was given as a concert piece in St. Petersburg and Paris in 1914, but it then fell into silence during World War I and was revived only in the early 1920s, the U.S. premiere coming in 1922. Not until 1929 was there a recording. Heard in black and white, clangorous at the keyboard and driven by oscillating fingers, The Rite probably sounded more hard-edged, unyielding and monolithic than we are used to hearing it—in a word, more mechanical.

That was certainly how George Antheil heard it in New York before writing such works as his “Airplane” Sonata (1921), with its shifting accents, ostinatos, hammered dissonances and spatchcock form. And that was how The Rite was understood back home in Russia, by the local futurists, among whom Antheil’s contemporary Alexander Mosolov is remembered for the most unabashed example of blunt orchestral ostinato: the piece he called Factory: Machine-Music (1926–27) but that is often known as The Iron Foundry. Of course, it was possible to do ostinato more subtly, as Arthur Honegger did in Pacific 2–3–1 (1923), where again the irregularities of The Rite were ironed out to make ostinatos whose rotations suggest heavy machinery (a steam locomotive in this case), but with far more variety of sound and texture, to create a more progressive form.

More diverse shards from The Rite turned up here and there in the music of the 1920s, especially that of composers who, like Antheil, were living in Paris (having sailed to Europe in 1922). Aaron Copland, Antheil’s compatriot and a contemporary, was dismissive of the latter’s effort to “out-sack the ‘Sacre’ ” in his Ballet mécanique (1923–24), but that did not mean Copland was against drawing on elements of the Stravinsky score, as he did in his ballet Grohg (1925). Indeed, The Rite seems to have been a totem for Copland for many years, a necessary presence but one to be wary of. Appalachian Spring (1944), Stravinskian in its season and its central young couple (Les Noces), worked the problem out of Copland’s system.

By then The Rite was well into the system of composers too young to remember a world in which it had not existed—composers who, perhaps for that reason, were able to take a more analytical approach. Such was in part Olivier Messiaen’s way. Shadows of the strong syncopations and massive orchestral chants of The Rite pass through a great deal of Messiaen’s music, but he considered the work’s most fecund contribution to be its “rhythmic personalities,” small figures defined by the durations of their notes and remaining recognizable when notes were added or subtracted. He distinguished three of these in the “Sacrificial Dance,” and showed, in his classes and public statements, how they acted on one another, becoming shorter or longer, or staying the same. It was a principle he used in a lot of his works, from his Turangalîla Symphony (1946–48) onward. Hardly less important to him, though, was how The Rite worked as an almost sacred form. Leaving aside all question of archaeological accuracy, The Rite is indeed a rite, and much of it evokes communal actions and priestly gestures even when the music is heard without balletic interpretation, the instruments alone engaged in circlings, points of calm and dances of increasing violence. This idea of music as ceremony had lapsed in the immediate aftermath of The Rite, until powerfully revived by Messiaen, as for example in Chronochromie (1959–60), a work that had something else in common with The Rite: a noisy premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

Acknowledging The Rite as ritual, Messiaen opened the way for a great many younger composers, principally in Europe and Asia, as the hieratic nature of Stravinsky’s work never had much purchase in the U.S. Some who have followed Messiaen in this respect have been pupils of his, notably Karlheinz Stockhausen in numerous works. His orchestral Inori (1973–74), has mime soloists in attitudes of prayer that the music seems to embody and amplify. Among others, not taught by Messiaen, Harrison Birtwistle has found ritual forms for many of his concert works, his Verses for Ensembles (1968–69) having soloists and small groups moving between different stations to enact their antiphonies, while the very title of his Earth Dances (1986) pays homage to its great progenitor, whose first part ends with a “Dance of the Earth.”

Messiaen’s rhythmic analysis of The Rite, as well, proved fruitful for the next generation, and especially for another of his early pupils, Pierre Boulez. In 1951, then reaching toward the zenith that proved a nadir of total serialism, Boulez formalized and extended the notion of motivic rhythm in an essay that has remained his longest and deepest analytical plunge into any musical score, his own certainly included: “Stravinsky Remains.” Generally dismissing the melodic and harmonic aspects of The Rite, the young Boulez boldly praised its rhythmic construction, and especially how it advanced “rhythmic themes,” such as, most simply, the theme of accentual patterns that shapes the “Augurs of Spring” sequence. In typical Boulez style, he responded to this breakthrough as a point of departure, from which composers could use Stravinsky’s rediscovery of rhythm as a “principal structural agent” in order to bind together rhythm and other domains “much more subtly.” What he was foreseeing here was probably something very like his Le Marteau sans maître (1952–54)—a piece written when The Rite was still only forty years old, and its composer very much alive and at work.

As to the presence of The Rite in the second half of its century, it has been everywhere, in all its many guises. Its sheer noise and emphatic pulsings are reinvoked in such mighty orchestral scores as Iannis Xenakis’s Jonchaies (1977). As the folk-music apotheosis admired by Bartók, it has provided an example for innumerable composers, Xenakis certainly included. Its enriched chords have helped form harmonic styles neither tonal nor atonal, as in much of György Ligeti’s music. Louis Andriessen, in the book on Stravinsky he wrote with Elmer Schönberger, The Apollonian Clockwork, draws attention to The Rite as the prime example of montage form, cutting between different components, as his own music so often does. Luciano Berio, forming the stream of quotations in his Sinfonia (1968–69), inevitably included a spectacular burst from The Rite—not the “Augurs of Spring” this time, but the “Dance of the Earth.” As Gérard Grisey may well have observed, the chord of string harmonics heard when the Sage kisses the earth is an ancestor of spectral music. More recently, György Kurtág found himself glancing in the direction of The Rite at one point in his …concertante… (2003). In one of his rare concerts with a large orchestra, Thomas Adès chose to conduct The Rite, on a program with Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony. Lev Zhurbin last year did a remix of the original folk melodies with his Kontraband. Hardly a composer working today has failed to find some stimulating energy in the score, which surely contains a great many more seeds still to germinate.

This feature originally appeared on, an award-winning music magazine.

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