A section of a facsimile of Stravinsky’s manuscript for Rite of Spring, which was published this year to mark the centenary
The Rite of Spring was a revolutionary work for a revolutionary time. Its first performance in Paris, exactly 100 years ago on Wednesday, was a key moment in cultural history – a tumultuous scandal.
Written on the eve of the first world war and the Russian revolution, the piece is the emblem of an era of great scientific, artistic and intellectual ferment. No composer since can avoid the shadow of this great icon of the 20th century, and score after score by modern masters would be unthinkable without its model.
The Rite of Spring has survived many trials in its first 100 years, not excluding the notorious premiere, during which Nijinsky's provocative choreography elicited such a volume of abuse that the music itself was frequently inaudible. Initial performances – even Stravinsky's own – of this immensely complex score were often on the edge of collapse, but the piece is now part of the international orchestral repertoire and the greatest risk it faces today, paradoxically, is routine renditions which make a work which should shock seem safe and easy.
And this score did intend to shock. Its savage violence confronted head-on the aesthetics of impressionism – then at the apogee of Parisian musical fashion – just as the razor-sharp editing between phrases subverted the smooth, seamless flow of the Germanic symphonic tradition with pitiless efficacy.
This, in a way, is cubist music – where musical materials slice into one another, interact and superimpose with the most brutal edges, thus challenging the musical perspective and logic that had dominated European ears for centuries.
Stravinsky's greatest weapon in this assault was a fundamental musical resource, low on the list of priorities for most post-Wagnerian composers: rhythm.
From start to finish The Rite of Spring exalts in a new and explosive sense of musical movement. Not the subtle interplay of periodic symmetries typical of the classical era, nor the curvaceous, subjective flexibility in the flow of time that romanticism relished.
Stravinsky's rhythms pound and batter; though highly irregular they are still pulsed – and pulsed in such a novel way that the score required innovations in musical notation to make Stravinsky's invention playable.
And in no way are these rhythms presented discreetly – on the contrary, they are frequently hammered out in unison by the gigantic orchestra that the work employs. Indeed, one of the most thrilling aspects of a good performance, even without choreography, is how it looks: few things on a concert platform can rival the display of so many musicians executing such jagged and unpredictable rhythmical shapes in perfect unison.
In order to concentrate the listener's perception on the rhythm, melodic material – most of it pinched from a book of Lithuanian folk tunes – is extremely simple, sometimes reduced to tiny repetitive patterns of a mere two or three pitches.
In tandem with this linear simplicity, the work's gigantic crunching harmonies move at the pace of glaciers, this slow harmonic movement paradoxically magnifying the overall sense of energy and drive. These edifices of sound – though disturbingly dissonant for an audience in 1913 – are chosen with impeccable refinement, and they underpin the score's complete arc with a structural surety on an almost Beethovenian level.
And, as with Beethoven at his most emphatic, percussive accents pervade the orchestration. The huge wind and brass sections steal the foreground from the habitually warmer sonority of the strings, and the percussion section dominates over everything. In particular, the spectacular writing for a pair of timpanists and the bass drum typify not only the sound of the Rite but its physical impact as well – indeed, one can feel pulled by them into a rhythmical maelstrom of an almost tribal intensity.
But not all in The Rite of Spring is frenzied or aggressive. In particular, the introductions to both parts betray a much more generous sense of lyricism, enveloped in a palpable sense of mystery. And who could ever forget, once heard, the plangent and eerie high unaccompanied bassoon solo with which the piece opens?
Since 1913 generation after generation of composers – from Varèse to Boulez, Bartók to Ligeti — has felt impelled to face the challenges set by this seminal masterwork. For many, rhythm – more than pitch – has propelled itself to the forefront of musical action due specifically to the Rite's influence.
Musical continuity – akin to cinematic editing – and its impact on large-scale form have also been fundamentally affected by Stravinsky's innovations. This geometric approach to musical construction contrasts vividly with that of Stravinsky's great contemporary Schoenberg and his school, where forms evolve through organic growth and perpetual transformation.
The latter's harmonic idiom – often called atonal – also diverges strongly from Stravinsky's approach, which is essentially modal and hardly further removed from tonality than the work of his Parisian friends Debussy and Ravel.
History – fortunately – does not necessarily move in straight lines, and, specifically, the Rite's atavistic primitivism was rarely emulated by major creative figures as the 20th century evolved – or, indeed, by its composer himself. For within a handful of years, Stravinsky was pursuing an ironic, detached and elegant neoclassical aesthetic, which initially bewildered his fans as much as his detractors. Indeed many people viewed Stravinsky's evolution beyond the Rite as a betrayal of both his Slavic roots and modernistic genius, so the question can be posed in all earnestness: did Stravinsky himself survive the Rite?
The score has survived constant choreographic reinterpretation, endless analysis and exploitation in the movies – even being featured in Walt Disney's Fantasia. Stravinsky apparently hated how the cartoon cut and represented his ballet. I, for one, cannot fully disassociate the piece from the gaudy though enthralling images of dinosaurs and volcanic eruptions that so entranced me as a small child.
But Stravinsky was – like his great contemporary Picasso – a restless, protean genius, incapable of treading water. Despite the occasional attempt, he never again attained the savage, cathartic energy of the Rite nor the spectacular succès de scandale it created.
But I love the Byzantine splendour of his Symphony of Psalms, the austere radiance of the Mass or the kaleidoscopic stylistic play of Agon – products of the 1930s, 40s and 50s – just as much as this epoch-making evocation of the archaic rituals of Russian spring. They thrill me less, and move me more.
George Benjamin is one of Britain's most distinguished composers. He studied with Olivier Messiaen in Paris at the age of 15 and had his first major orchestral piece premiered at the Proms when he was still only 20. He then worked in Paris with Pierre Boulez before returning to London. His recent opera, Written on Skin, was recently performed at the Royal Opera House.
'Something of genius'
Below is a review in the Manchester Guardian of Stravinsky's The Firebird Suite, on 5 September 1913 which refers to the "carnival of abuse" which had greeted The Rite of Spring a few months earlier in Paris. In 1921 Ernest Newman wrote in the Guardian of "the sensible view that Stravinsky is a man of genius" who sometimes found "the double task of expressing a new spirit and making a new language a little beyond his powers". In 1934 Neville Cardus mused: "Maybe tomorrow … Stravinsky will share the fate of Strauss and Debusssy, and be called old-fashioned by the latest young 'bloods' while the rest of us in our advancing senility cry out 'O for the good old tunes of 'Le Sacre'."