The Rite of Spring

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Musical Recordings and compositions

The Rite of Spring (French: Le Sacre du printemps; Russian: Весна священная, Vesna svjaščennaja) is a ballet with music by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. While the Russian title literally means "Spring the Sacred", the English title is based on the French title under which the work was premiered, although sacre is more precisely translated as "consecration". It has the subtitle "Pictures from Pagan Russia".

Composition and critical reception

After coming up with the idea of the piece in 1910 from a fantasy vision of pagan ritual encountered during the composition of The Firebird, Stravinsky began forming sketches and ideas for the piece, enlisting the help of archaeologist and folklorist Nikolai Roerich. Though he was sidetracked for a year while he worked on Petrushka (which he intended to be a light burlesque as a relief from the orchestrally-intense work already in progress), The Rite of Spring was composed between 1912 and 1913 for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Roerich was an integral part of the creation of the work, drawing from scenes of historical rites for inspiration; Stravinsky referred to the work-in-progress as "our child". After going through revisions almost up until the very day of its first performance, it was premiered on May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris and was conducted by Pierre Monteux.

The Ballets Russes staged the first performance. The intensely rhythmic score and primitive scenario -- a setting of scenes from pagan Russia -- shocked audiences more accustomed to the demure conventions of classical ballet. Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography was a radical departure from classical ballet. Different from the long and graceful lines of traditional ballet, arms and legs were sharply bent. The dancers danced more from their pelvis than their feet, a style that later influenced Martha Graham.

The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd, and there were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work, and were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance, and Stravinsky himself was so upset due to its reception that he fled the theatre in mid-scene.

Although Nijinsky and Stravinsky were despondent, Diaghilev (a Russian art critic as well as the ballet's impresario) commented that the scandal was "just what I wanted". Although the music and dance were considered barbaric and sexual and are also often noted as being the primary factors for the cause of the riot, many political and social tensions surrounding the premiere contributed to the backlash as well. The work is now a standard of dance troupes around the world and has been choreographed by Pina Bausch and Sir Kenneth MacMillan.

The ballet completed its run of six performances amid controversy, but experienced no further disruption. Both Stravinsky and Nijinsky continued to work, but neither created pieces in this percussive and intense style again.

Stravinsky was continually revising the work for both musical and practical reasons, even after its premiere and well into the early 1920s. Stravinsky made a version of the score for piano four hands (that is, two people playing at one piano) and for two pianos four hands (two pianos, one person at each) that was performed with Debussy; as he composed the Rite, as with his other works, at the piano, it is natural that he worked on the piano version of the work concurrently with the full orchestral score. It was in this form that the piece was first published (in 1913, the full score not being published until 1921). Due to the disruption caused by World War I, there were few performances of the work in the years following its composition, which made this arrangement the main way in which people got to know the piece; this version is still performed quite frequently, as it does not require the massive forces of the full orchestral version.

The same performers gave a production of the work in London later the same year. Its United States premiere was in 1924 in a concert (that is, non-staged) version.


The Rite of Spring is a series of episodes depicting a wild pagan spring ritual: "...the wise elders are seated in a circle and are observing the dance before death of the girl whom they are offering as a sacrifice to the god of Spring in order to gain his benevolence," says Stravinsky, of the imagery that prompted the genesis of the work. Though the music is capable of standing alone, and was a great success in the concert-hall, in conception it is inextricably tied to the action on stage. The Rite is divided into two parts with the following scenes (there are many different translations of the original titles; the ones given are Stravinsky's preferred wording):

Nicholas Roerich's 1913 set design for Part I: Adoration of the Earth.
Nicholas Roerich's 1913 set design for Part I: Adoration of the Earth.

Part I: Adoration of the Earth

  • Introduction
  • The Augurs of Spring (Dances of the Young Girls)
  • Ritual of Abductions
  • Spring Rounds (Round Dance)
  • Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes
  • Procession of the Oldest and Wisest One (The Sage)
  • The Kiss of the Earth (Adoration of the Earth, or the Wise Elder)
  • The Dancing Out of the Earth

Part II: The Sacrifice

  • Introduction
  • Mystic Circle of the Young Girls
  • The Glorification of the Chosen One
  • Evocation of the Ancestors (Ancestral Spirits)
  • Ritual Action of the Ancestors
  • Sacrificial Dance (the Chosen One)

Though the melodies draw from folklike themes designed to evoke the feeling of songs passed down from ancient time, the only tune Stravinsky acknowledged to be directly drawn from previously-existing folk melody is the opening, first heard played by the solo bassoon. Several other themes, however, have been shown to have a striking similarity to folk tunes appearing in the Juskiewicz anthology of Lithuanian folk songs.

Musical characteristics

Stravinsky's music is harmonically adventurous, with an emphasis on dissonance used for its own sake. Rhythmically, it is similarly harsh, with a number of sections having constantly changing time signatures and unpredictable off-beat accents. The technique that he employs is often characterized as primitivism. An example can be seen below (from the opening of the final section, the "Sacrificial Dance"):

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, "Sacrificial Dance"

According to George Perle the "intersecting of inherently non-symmetrical diatonic elements with inherently non-diatonic symmetrical elements seems...the defining principle of the musical language of Le Sacre and the source of the unparalleled tension and conflicted energy of the work".

Further, "the diatonicism of Le Sacre du printemps should not be understood in the restrictive sense of the major/minor system, but in terms of something more basic. Like the symmetrical partitionings of the twelve-tone scale in Le Sacre, its diatonicism may also be explained in terms of interval cycles--more simply and coherently, in fact, than in terms of the traditional modes and scales. With the single exception of interval[-class] 5, every interval[-class] from 1 through 6 will partition the space of an octave into equal segments. A seven-note segment of the interval-5 cycle [C5], telescoped into the compass of an octave, divides the octave into unequal intervals--'whole-steps' and 'half-steps'".

Example: The main theme from the Introduction, preceded by the head motif.

The boundary of what Perle considers the principal theme from the Introduction, following the solo bassoon head motif in measures 1-3, is a symmetrical tritone divided by minor thirds, making an interval-3 cycle (C 3) (p. 19). Like Varese's Density 21.5, "it partitioned the interval of a tritone into two minor thirds and differentiated these by twice filling in the span of the upper third--first chromatically and then with a single passing note--and leaving the lower third open". The theme repeats "truncated" in 7-9, the head motif only in 13, and then fully, transposed down a half step, fifty three measures later, 66, at the end of the movement with "cb-bb-ab instead of the head motif's c-b-a" (p. 81-82).

Like Density 21.5, it "implies the complete representation of each partition of the C3 interval cycle." C30 begins in the head motif's c-b-a and is completed by the main theme which immediately follows (see example above). However, "the otherwise atonal C 3 cycle is initiated by a minor third that is plainly diatonic and tonal" (p. 83). Thus The Rite of Spring has something in common with No. 33 of Bartok's 44 Violin Duets, " Song of the Harvest", which, "juxtaposes tonal and atonal interpretations of the same perfect-4th tetrachord" (p. 86).

The orchestra

The piece is scored for an unusually large orchestra: piccolo, three flutes (3rd doubling piccolo 2), alto flute, four oboes (4th doubling cor anglais 2), cor anglais, E-flat clarinet, three clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet 2), bass clarinet (doubling clarinet 4), four bassoons (4th doubling contrabassoon 2), contrabassoon, eight horns (7th & 8th doubling tenor Wagner Tubas), piccolo trumpet (written in D), four trumpets (4th doubling E-flat bass trumpet) three trombones, two tubas, timpani played by two musicians, bass drum, triangle, tambourine, tam-tam, güiro, crotales, and strings. The percussion section called for was, at the time, the largest for any ballet. Stravinsky generates a wide variety of timbres from this ensemble, beginning the ballet with a very quiet and high bassoon solo, and ending with a frenzied dance played by the whole orchestra.

Aaron Copland, in his 1951 Charles Eliot Norton lectures, characterized the Rite of Spring as the foremost orchestral achievement of the 20th century.

As film score

Many people will have met the Rite of Spring through Walt Disney's Fantasia ( 1940), an animated feature film in which imaginative visual images and stories are added to classical music. Stravinsky's own 1961 recording of the work for Columbia Records included liner notes by him, transcribed from an interview for which the audio still exists. Therein, he stated that he received $1,200 (his share of a total $5,000) for the use of his music in the film, explaining that since his music was not copyrighted for use in the USA it could be used regardless of whether he granted permission or not, but that Disney wished to show the film in other countries. In order for the music to follow the animated story concerned, much of Part I either was omitted entirely or was moved to, or repeated at, the end. Stravinsky described the performance as "execrable" and thought the segment as a whole "involved a dangerous misunderstanding".

The Walt Disney studios countered his assertions with detailed reports and photographs of Stravinsky's visit to the studio in which he was shown an early version of the sequence. "Ah, yes! That is just what I meant, I suppose!" he chuckled. He is seen in various photographs smiling and holding animation reference maquettes, and after seeing the piece, he gave Disney rights to film The Firebird in any subsequent version of Fantasia.

The Disney studios maintain they were completely surprised by his turn of opinion in latter years. In the most bizarre iteration of Stravinsky's story regarding his trip to the studio, he claimed he signed over the rights for The Firebird to the Disney studios only after Walt Disney personally threatened him and told him he was going to film The Firebird whether he liked it or not, so he might as well sign over the rights and be paid for it. Such a story strains credibility, and the Disney family maintains that Stravinsky was being disingenous, for whatever personal reason. Walt's nephew Roy Disney later used The Firebird in his production of Fantasia 2000.

The Rite of Spring is the fourth piece to be played in the film, illustrated by "a pageant, as the story of the growth of life on Earth" according to the narrator, Deems Taylor. The sequence shows the beginning of simple life forms, evolution up to the dinosaurs, and their eventual destruction. The movie was not considered successful at the time, but has since been hailed as an ambitious and talented use of animation for 'serious' art.

Many subsequent film composers have been influenced by The Rite of Spring and sometimes make indirect references to it. For example, John Williams's theme for the Dune Sea of Tatooine in the original Star Wars soundtrack begins with a permutation of the introduction to Part II of the Rite of Spring. In fact, much of the original Star Wars score (as well throughout the two trilogies) borrows heavily (albeit in a modified fashion) from the Rite, Stravinsky's other ballets, and myriad other composers. In the sleeve notes of the special edition of the OST of Star Wars Episode IV, A New Hope, John Williams is quoted as saying that he broke one of his own cardinal rules, in that he listened to Lucas's temporary musical soundtrack. The incredibly close similarity of The Dune theme and the Introduction of Part II of Stravinsky's work suggest that George Lucas had used this very piece as music for that scene. Other similarities to the Rite are obvious in Williams' scores for Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, and the Indiana Jones trilogy.

Notable recordings

  • Pierre Monteux conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, RCA, recorded 1951 (mono)
  • Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic, Sony, recorded 1958
  • Igor Markevitch conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, Testament, recorded 1959
  • Igor Stravinsky conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Sony, recorded 1960
  • Karel Ančerl conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Supraphon, recorded 1963
  • Seiji Ozawa conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, RCA, recorded 1968
  • Pierre Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra, Sony, recorded 1969
  • Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon, recorded 1977
  • Benjamin Zander conducting the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, IMP, recorded 1990
  • Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony, RCA, recorded 1996
  • Valery Gergiev conducting the orchestra of the Kirov Opera, Philips, recorded 1999
  • Berlin electronic group the Assdroids released a ten-minute-thrity-one-second "cover" of The Rite of Spring, although the piece is barely recognizable as Stravinsky's composition, Cock Rock Disco, recorded 2006

Stravinsky reportedly greeted Leonard Bernstein's 1958 recording with the one-word reaction, "Wow!" In a detailed review of Herbert von Karajan's first 1964 account he derided it as "a pet savage rather than a real one", and described Action rituelle des ancetres as "tempo di hoochie-coochie" and "duller than Disney's dying dinosaurs".

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