Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring
That's exactly the case with The Rite of Spring. Igor Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring in 1913. It redefined 20th-century music, much as Beethoven's Eroica had transformed music a century before.
With it, Stravinsky took himself far into the realm of the unconscious. The music seemed designed with no apparent order but driven by pure gut feeling.
In turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg, everything fashionable seemed to be from anyplace but Russia. The architecture, the music, even the language that the "best" people spoke was French.
But artists of all kinds in Russia revolted against this dependence on European ideas. They wanted to establish a nationalist, Russian identity. A powerful mover among them was Stravinsky's teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov.
Rimsky had been a member of the so-called “Mighty Handful,” a group of adventurous, original young composers who began writing music that sounded truly Russian. They were inspired by the old myths and epics and fairy tales. And they all used folksongs and chants to give their music a very particular Russian flavor.
Composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov provided lushly orchestrated music that served as the soundtrack for lavish operas and ballets at the imperial theater. But the imperial theater could bog down in bureaucracy and favoritism, stifling the most creative and ambitious artists of the day.
Diaghilev and Paris
Among those artists was Serge Diaghilev, a producer and aesthete with great energy and vision. He believed in the artistic future of all things authentically Russian. In the face of controversy with the imperial theater, Diaghilev went abroad.
Diaghilev knew that Parisian audiences were fascinated by Russian culture, which made Paris the perfect place for Diaghilev's revolutionary Ballets Russes.
Diaghilev created a new ballet company built on the Parisian fantasies of old Russia. Featuring the exotic, the erotic, and the occult, the Ballets Russes astonished the world in its first season.
For the company's second season, Diaghilev had promised a daring new ballet, but a crisis loomed when two Russian composers failed to deliver an acceptable score.
Desperate, Diaghilev turned to the young, untried Igor Stravinsky to write the music we now know as The Firebird, which premiered in Paris in 1910. Based on the Slavic myth of a phoenix-like creature who helps a prince triumph over evil, The Firebird was a huge success.
Russian Village Music
Stravinsky wanted to bring music back to the origins of dance. He frequently summered in Ustilug, where he was exposed to the old Russian culture that thrived in villages surrounding his family's country home.
In the villages, people celebrated the times of planting and harvesting, and the mysteries of gods and fate. Naturally, the villagers celebrated with music, made with whatever they had—their natural, untrained voices, their hands and feet, and instruments which they had often built themselves. The result was a wild, enthusiastic mixture of song and noise.
This kind of music-making made an enormous impression on the young Stravinsky. He wanted to use the sophisticated symphony orchestra to evoke the wild power of village music—the way it sounded and the way it must have felt to the people making it.
The Rite of Spring
By 1913, Paris adored the Ballets Russes, with its lavish productions that star dancer Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed. The opulent sets were designed by Nicholas Roerich, and the brilliant scores were written by the now resident composer, Igor Stravinsky.
And then came the most famous opening-night scandal in history: the premiere of The Rite of Spring. As the crowd arrived on opening night, expectations were high.
The Théàtre des Champs Élysées had just opened, and audience members came to see and be seen. Stravinsky was nervous because he knew that avant-garde pieces were risky in Paris.
Decades before, Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser had been booed off the stage at the Opera. But danger was the exciting part. Stravinsky had had great success here in the past with The Firebird and Petrushka.
As the curtain went up and the opening notes were heard, a ruckus broke out in the auditorium. The opening bassoon solo was set so high that the audience didn’t know what instrument they were hearing.
As the lights came up on the first tableau of dancers, people began yelling, and a wilder and wilder shouting match began. It became difficult to hear the music.
As he heard the roar of the audience begin to build, Stravinsky panicked and ran backstage to intervene. By the time he reached the wings, things were in complete chaos.
But the performance continued. Diaghilev may have expected there would be some kind of ruckus at the performance. Unbeknownst to Stravinsky and Nijinsky, he had instructed the conductor, Pierre Monteux, to keep going no matter what happened.
Stravinsky had taken the orchestra, which was associated with high society and culture, and brought it to this carnal, bestial, earthy level. The audience was making so much noise that the dancers could not hear the music and stay in sync.
So Nijinsky climbed on a chair and leaned out so far into the set that Stravinsky had to grab him by his coattails to keep him from falling over.
Amidst the huge racket of the orchestra and the crowd and the pounding of the dancers’ feet, Nijinsky was there yelling out the numbers: 19, 20, 21, 22!
Back to Russian Folk Roots
What did Stravinsky write that was so powerful? He wanted to recreate ancient times, a time of a huge, untouched landscape within which a few tribal people gathered once a year to celebrate their relationship to the earth.
For the raw material, Stravinsky turned to a book that contained all kinds of folksongs with roots in those pagan rituals. Stravinsky knew this music well from his summers in Ustilug.
But he had to figure out what instruments could play these folk sounds. The orchestra is made up of modern instruments of great sophistication. These instruments have no relationship to the instruments that people make with their own hands.
Stravinsky’s solution was to write for the instruments of the modern orchestra in bizarre ways. He pushed them to the extreme heights and depths of their ranges. He put them in uncomfortable positions which resulted in that strained, weird quality he was looking for. He mimicked the authentic village sound by adding grace notes to the lines, which suggested the vocal breaks of untutored singers.
Village dances were made up of teams moving in different patterns. In much the same way, teams of instruments play in the Rite. The alternation of these teams, splitting up to form and reform, maintain the excitement of the piece.
Sometimes the teams alternate, but sometimes they keep playing until they create a huge pile-up of sound, in which no one is willing to stop or give in to anyone else. The point of this is sensory overload, until the conflict takes us to complete burnout.
What makes this piece stand apart from anything written before is the rawness and vitality of the rhythmic elements.
The Rite of Spring may not be as shocking today as it was at that scandalous premiere in 1913, but more than 90 years later, it still has that edgy, intense, almost out-of-control feeling that makes it as exhilarating—and liberating—as music can be.