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Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
January 24, 2021
95th Season / "Beyond the Score"
Michael Allsen

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One of our most popular features over the past few seasons have been presentations in the Beyond the Score® series developed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. These innovative programs combine live actors, multimedia, and the orchestra to present deep and entertaining background on a featured work—followed by performance of the full work. At this program, actors James Ridge, Kelsey Brennan, and Jonathan Smoots from American Players Theatre will be on stage for the story of Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballet score, The Rite of Spring.

 

Notorious for the riot at its first performance in 1913, Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring is one of the defining works of the early 20th century. Rite tells a story of ritual and human sacrifice in ancient pagan Russia. Its music was uncompromisingly avant garde for the day, ranging from moments of lyricism and mystery to primitive violence.

 

Igor Stravinsky

Born: June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, Russia.

Died: April 6, 1971, New York City.

 

The Rite of Spring (1947 version)

     Composed: 1911-1912.

     Premiere: May 29, 1913, under the direction of Pierre Monteaux, at a performance of the Ballet Russe in Paris.

     Previous MSO Performance: 2007.

     Duration: 35:00.

 

Background

By 1909, Stravinsky, a student of the great Russian nationalist Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, had already made his mark in Russia with works such as the Symphony No.1 and Fireworks. His big break came in late 1909, however, when he received a telegram from Serge Diaghilev, inviting him to Paris to write a ballet score for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe. Diaghliev was a phenomenally successful impresario who had more or less singlehandedly engineered a craze for Russian art and music in early 20th-century Paris. He had put together successful shows of Russian traditional painting, and productions of Russian opera in the years before 1909. His most successful venture, however, was the Ballets Russe, a company largely comprised of Russian dancers and choreographers. It became the most influential ballet company of its day, and gained a reputation for cutting-edge dances that expanded the tradition-bound limits of classical ballet.

 

Stravinsky quickly completed The Firebird, a scenario based on an old Russian folk tale. The score was largely finished by the time he arrived in Paris, and the ballet was the hit of the 1910 season in Paris. Reaction to his second score for Diaghilev, Petrushka of 1911—also on a Russian-inspired theme—was every bit as enthusiastic. The origins of Stravinsky’s third score for Diaghilev seems to date back to 1909 or 1910. According to Stravinsky:

 

“One day, when I was finishing the last pages of l’Oiseau de feu [The Firebird] in St. Petersburg, I had a fleeting vision which came to me as a complete surprise, my mind at the moment being full of other things. I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite. Sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the God of Spring. I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le sacre passed.”

 

He mentioned the idea to a fellow Russian expatriate, Nicolas Roerich. Roerich was among the most colorful characters among the large population of Russians in Paris: a talented painter and poet, he had worked as a set- and costume-designer for Diaghilev and for other theaters in Paris. He was had wide-ranging interests in aesthetics and spirituality—he was one of the first Westerners to advocate the practice of Yoga, for example. More to the point, Roerich was also an amateur archeologist and an expert on the culture and ritual of pre-Christian Russia. Together, he and Stravinsky created a detailed two-part scenario, and presented it to Diaghilev, who was supportive.


 Stravinsky and Nijinsky (as Petrushka)

The third member of the team that created the ballet was Diaghilev’s lead dancer, Vaclav Nijinsky. Nijinsky, possibly one of the finest dancers of all time, was interested in choreography that would push the boundaries of ballet. His first effort was a controversial and sexually explicit 1912 ballet on Debussy’s Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun” with choreography based in part on the stylized two-dimensional world of Greek vase paintings. For Rite, he created he created motions that were brutal and deliberately awkward and primitive: dancers standing pigeon-toed and knock-kneed rather than the more usual graceful turnout position. Though much of the score was finished by the time Nijinsky was involved, he and Stravinsky collaborated closely on the final version. In many cases, Stravinsky’s rhythms suggested specific motions, and in others Nijinsky’s choreography necessitated revisions to the score. The result was something entirely different than traditional ballet, with its free-flowing relationship between musical rhythm and dance. Virtually every note of Rite’s score was reflected in the dancers’ often violent motions. Though Nijinsky never notated his choreography, it was reconstructed some 70 years later by dance historian Millicent Hodson, and performed by the Joffrey Ballet in the 1980s.

 

The Riot

The premiere of Rite is infamous as the scene of a riot. An open dress rehearsal on the day before had been well-attended and uneventful, but on opening night, the jeers and catcalls began almost immediately, followed quickly by cries of “Ta guele!” (“Shut up!”). Twenty years later, Stravinsky remembered:

 

“During the whole performance I was at Nijinsky’s side in the wings. He was standing on a chair, screaming ‘sixteen, seventeen, eighteen’—they had their own method of counting to keep time. Naturally, the poor dancers could hear nothing by reason of the row in the auditorium and the sound of their own dance steps. I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes, for he was furious, and ready to dash on stage at any moment and create a scandal. Diaghilev kept ordering the electricians to turn the lights on or off, hoping in that way to put a stop to the noise. That is all I can remember about that first performance.”

 

Why were they so upset? The riot seems to have been the work of a small group, a clacque who came determined to disrupt the performance. The main objection was probably to Nijinsky’s revolutionary choreography. (Parisians took their ballet seriously.) But according to biographer Stephen Walsh: “...the music might well have merited a riot. Certainly it was to remain the most notoriously violent score of a time when huge, noisy orchestras and harsh dissonance were more or less commonplace appurtenances of the new music.” In any case, the next night’s performance and several later performances by the Ballets Russe were received warmly.

 

The Scenario

Roerich and Stravinsky described the action of Rite as follows (Section-titles have been inserted into their synopsis.):

 

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

 

“First Part: THE ADORATION OF THE EARTH— The Spring celebration. It takes place in the hills. The pipers pipe and the young men tell fortunes [Augurs of Spring]. The 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 [Dance of the Abduction]. The Spring Khorovod [Spring Rounds]. The people divide into two groups, opposing each other [Ritual of the Rival Tribes]. The holy procession of the wise old men [Procession of the Sage]. The oldest and wisest interrupts the spring games, which come to a stop. The people pause trembling before the great action. The old men bless the earth. The Kiss of the Earth [The Sage]. The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it [Dance of the Earth].

 

“Second Part: THE GREAT SACRIFICE — At night the virgins hold mysterious games, walking in circles [Mystic Circles of the Young Girls]. One of the virgins is consecrated and is twice pointed to by fate, being caught twice in the perpetual circle. The virgins honor her, the chosen one, with a marital dance [Glorification of the Chosen One]. They invoke the ancestors and entrust the chosen one to the old wise men [Ritual Action of the Ancestors]. She sacrifices herself in the presence of the old men in the great holy dance, the great sacrifice [Sacrificial Dance].”

 

This is strong stuff—even for progressive Paris in 1913—and Stravinsky’s revolutionary score is every bit as powerful as the scenario. Much of the melodic material of Rite was drawn from Russian folk songs, though often in highly altered forms that suggested some of the work’s distinctive rhythms. Rite’s constantly shifting meters, complex rhythms, and the technical demands made on virtually every member of a vastly expanded orchestra make this one of the most challenging pieces in the orchestral repertoire.

 
   Dancers at the 1913 production

What You’ll Hear

The work begins quietly with the famous bassoon solo, playing at the extreme upper end of the instrument’s range. The introduction is dominated by woodwind timbre. Augurs of Spring is signaled by a barbaric string rhythm, and when the young girls enter, the music is only marginally more gentle. Brass gradually dominate during the violent Ritual of Abduction, until a sudden break in the tension: high woodwind trills above a mysterious melody and the ponderous rhythm of the Spring Rounds. The rounds climax with great gong crash and a savage brass phrase. The violent games of the rival tribes are represented by in angry barks from the tubas, and wild trumpet and horn phrases. The games are gradually taken over by the slow, shambling approach of the Sage, and the music reaches a peak of intensity before the Adoration itself: a mysterious chord played as the Sage painfully falls prone on the ground to kiss the earth. The concluding Dance of the Earth is partly a reprise of ideas from the games, but here it reaches a furious conclusion.

 

Part II again opens quietly. The scene is set with a lengthy introduction with delicate woodwind and string textures above a harmonically static background. The opening is a scene of thirteen young girls dancing an intricate interweaving circle dance, played by woodwinds and strings. This is serious business, as the girl who makes a mistake becomes the sacrificial victim. Her two missteps are clearly audible as sudden breaks in the dance. On the second, she is placed in the center of the Mystical Circle—she has become the Chosen One, never to leave the circle alive—and the dance suddenly becomes brutally joyful as the other girls glorify her. The mysterious entry of the Ancestors is signaled by low woodwinds—alto flute and bass clarinet—and the music moves inexorably towards another ferocious climax.  The Sacrificial Dance itself alternates the Ancestors’ ritualistic music with the increasingly frantic music of the Chosen One as she dances herself to exhaustion, and finally to death.

 

[A footnote: In the late 1940s, Stravinsky republished several early works, including most of the Diaghilev ballets, in slightly revised versions. This was done primarily to preserve his copyright on these early works, and partly to protect them from appearing in faulty versions. The most egregious example is the shortened and bowlderized version of Rite that appears in the 1940 Disney film Fantasia. Though Stravinsky didn’t apparently raise a fuss at the time, he later said that he was appalled by the use of Rite as an accompaniment for lumbering dinosaurs. What is usually known as the “1947 version” of Rite—the version heard at this concert—differs only in small details from what was heard in Paris in 1913.]

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program notes ©2020 by J. Michael Allsen