June 17, 2017

Contact With a Mystery

Contact With a Mystery
Igor Stravinsky, 1920s-30s. George Grantham Bain Collection (United States Library of Congress)

Born on this day in 1882, Igor Stravinsky, one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, in many ways defined the music of his era.

The music from his ballet, The Rite of Spring, receives the greatest attention these days. Indeed, ever since its premiere in May 1913, The Rite of Spring remains one of Stravinsky’s best-known and most revolutionary works.

Some 50 years ago, and nearly 50 years after the premiere of The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky discussed the similarities and differences between himself and Arnold Schoenberg – another genius of the twentieth century, and who for a time was mistakenly considered Stravinsky’s nemesis. Stravinsky said he and Schoenberg shared similar experiences in the obstacles their first works encountered before gaining success. Transfigured Night and The Firebird remained their most popular works during their lives and after. Stravinsky’s first three ballets, The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring are works that are today considered masterpieces of the first order, and are preferred by the listening public over the composer’s later works. However, it was not always that way. While The Firebird and Petrushka met with instant acclaim, The Rite of Spring at first encountered catastrophic failure.

Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and others
Photo taken in the living room of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. From left to right: Igor Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, his daughter Nadezhda Rimskaya-Korsakova, her fiancé Maximilian Steinberg, and Yekaterina Gavrilovna Stravinskaya née Nosenko, Stravinsky’s first wife. Taken in 1908 shortly before the death of Rimsky-Korsakov. Photo published in a Russian newspaper.

The ballet was originally called The Great Sacrifice and the idea for it occurred to Stravinsky unexpectedly. As he later recalled:

“Once, while I was writing the final pages of The Firebird in St. Petersburg, a pagan ritual scene suddenly took shape in my mind – elders were sitting and watching the last dance of a girl who was to be sacrificed to the god of spring… and the girl dances to her death from exhaustion."

The artist Nikolai Roerich assisted Stravinsky in developing the theme, painted the extravagant scenery, and was also instrumental in writing the libretto. The ballet opened with a scene of nature awakening in the spring sun. Stravinsky said, “I wanted the 'Prelude' to convey the awakening of spring, the rustling and sounds of birds and animals.” He was indeed capable of this feat – never before had music been so close to depicting nature so realistically.

The following scenes of the ballet feature groups of young men and maidens. They walk the earth, which has still not awoken from its wintry slumber, and ask it to bid farewell to winter. Each youth then chooses a maiden and takes her with him. The first part of the ballet, “The Kiss of the Earth,” concludes with the arrival of the Wisest Elder. He kisses the ground and blesses the earth. The second part, named, “The Great Sacrifice,” also opens with a nature scene. The young maidens join a group of youths who are taking part in games. The youths are to choose the sacrificial victim from among the maidens. The ritual of the “Glorification of the Chosen” follows as the tribe surrounds the motionless victim and sings her praises for the last dance. “The Great Sacred Dance” concludes in a scene of general ecstasy.

Vaslav Nijinsky at Krasnoye Selo, 1907.

Work on The Rite of Spring began in July 1911. It was to be included in Sergei Diaghilev’s repertoire for the following season. However, it quickly became clear that the production could not be staged so soon. Vaslav Nizhinsky became ballet master of Diaghilev’s company in 1913, when work on the ballet had already begun. Stravinsky would subsequently consider Nizhinsky’s work on the Rite of Spring differently at different times––sometimes praising it as superb, other times reacting to it condescendingly. One thing remains indisputable, Nizhinsky contributed no less than Stravinsky to one of the most celebrated scandals in the history of ballet. In the words of composer Francis Poulenc, who attended the premier, “the choreography of Nizhinsky seemed even more revolutionary than the music.”

Nizhinsky’s work actually had nothing in common with classical ballet, but was rather the precursor to contemporary dance. The “scenes of pagan Rus’” demanded ecstatic, frenzied, abrupt movements. The orchestra members and ballet dancers were used to the material from months of rehearsals, and had absolutely no idea that the ballet would have such a shocking effect on the public.

A possible reason for the ballet’s initial failure could have been its lack of stylistic unity. Roerich’s magnificent decorations and elegant costumes were not very suitable to the ballet’s bleak background scenery. The ballet’s music and the choreography were too avant-garde for the Parisian public. The program itself was a failure: on that ill-fated evening of May 29, 1913, it opened with “The Sylphides,” set to music by Chopin. It is hard to imagine a more unsuitable ballet company for The Rite of Spring. Even before the curtain was raised, boos resounded in the Champs Élysées Theater. As Jean Cocteau, who was there, recounted: “The audience laughed, howled, whistled, groaned and bleated.” Stravinsky left the hall a few minutes after the beginning and finished watching the performance from behind the scenes. “I needed to hold Nizhinsky by his clothes,” Stravinsky later said. “Nizhinsky was so outraged, he was ready to burst onto the stage and start a scandal.”

It is curious that The Rite of Spring met with such negative initial criticism not only with conservative Parisian ballet fans, but even with Stravinsky’s former friends. Stravinsky’s parting of the ways with Rimsky-Korsakov’s circle dates to his earlier ballet, Petrushka. This work combined authentic folk melodies with urban street folklore, which Rimsky-Korsakov’s widow declared was an insult to Russian folk music. Andrei Rimsky-Korsakov himself, Stravinsky’s former friend, spoke even more harshly about The Rite of Spring:

“It is a most vile piece of rubbish from the beginning to the end, despite two or three exceptions. I am very pleased with this work’s failure. I wanted that from the very beginning, and wanted it not out of spite, but out of friendship.”

Reactions were similar from other “enlightened” contemporaries about this ballet, which became one of the symbols of twentieth-century music, alongside works such as Kurt Weil’s Mack the Knife and the “Invasion Theme” from Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.

Part of Nicholas Roerich's designs for Diaghilev's 1913 production of Le Sacre du printemps

Sergei Lifar, ballet master of Diaghilev’s troupe, very pointedly called Stravinsky the evil genius of ballet:

“His music kills dance; it oppresses but it does not enrich. It is so good on its own that it does not require dance.”

So it is not by chance that The Rite of Spring was hailed by the public a year later, when it was played in concert (without dancers). In fact, its rich musical scores possess a self-fulfilling character. Even if a listener knows the work well and has heard it many times, the live performance is resplendent with something new and unusual. Maestro Pierre Monteux, who conducted the concert premiere, performance took a risk when he included The Rite of Spring in his concert series a year later – and won. Stravinsky’s masterpiece was born again on April 5, 1914. The audience gave it a standing ovation, and afterward ran behind the stage and carried the composer out in their arms. Stravinsky thanked Monteux some 40 years later by writing the “Greeting Prelude” for the conductor’s eightieth birthday. For the occasion, Stravinsky arranged the well-known song, “Happy Birthday to You,” as uniquely as only he could do.

To this day, the music of The Rite of Spring is innovative. The piece is so unprecedented and phenomenal that its appearance in the world can be explained only as a miracle of human genius. Stravinsky no doubt was not exaggerating when he said, “Only my hearing helped me. I listened and wrote down what I heard. I was the vessel through which flowed The Rite of Spring.” We find an echo of these words in a story from the famous violist Fyodor Druzhinin, who was fortunate to be present at a rehearsal of Spring:

“Well, of course people dispersed!” Stravinsky said, as he began to explain to me with his famous aplomb and exaggeration how the work needed to be conducted. “Look!”– and he suddenly began to enact the rhythmic structure of that interval – “Tee-ta-tee-ta-ta, ump,” etc. He opened his eyes wide and started to move his whole body, and that “ump” tore out from somewhere from the very depths of his being. Waves of such force came out of him. His eyes radiated such energy, that it seemed as if they were completely black, without pupils. It was the physical, actual contact with a mystery, with the miracle of music.”

This article originally appeared in Chtenia 02: Three Russian Springs (Spring 2008).

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