Igor Stravinsky: Rite of Spring (Happy 100 years!)

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, touched music in a way that was unheard of in the early 1900’s. Although he was the son of one of the Mariinsky Theater’s principal basses and a talented amateur pianist, Stravinsky had no more musical training than that of any other Russian upper-class child. When it came time, he attended law school, but also decided to begin private composition and orchestration studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Sergei Diaghilev, a Russian art critic and ballet impresario, was  impressed by Stravinsky’s talents, and asked him to orchestrate and compose ballets for his company, Ballet Russes. Stravinksy composed a triad of ballets; The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and then most importantly, The Rite of Spring (1913). This was the piece of music that established his career, and changed the face of music from that point forward.

With the infamous thirty-three minute “Rite of Spring”, Stravinsky was considered to be one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century. He became known all over the world for his stylistic diversity, technical use of rhythm and harmony, and an awe-inspiring musical career that spanned over seven decades. Exactly 100 years ago, the tumultuous Rite of Spring was performed in Paris for the first time, and the crowds broke out in violent riots. Unlike anything anyone had ever heard, the music had the power to bring out the savage brutality between those listening. Written on the eve of the first world war, and the Russian revolution, the Rite of Spring was both rebellious and gut-wrenching.  During Nijinsky’s provocative choreography, the music was often inaudible due to the sheer volume and abuse between instruments. While the performance was on the edge of collapse, its allure has perplexed composers and musicians a century later. As a key moment in cultural history, the Rite of Spring was truly revolutionary.

Here is a live version of the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, and completed with 250 dancers.

During my own listening, I couldn’t help but notice the razor-sharp editing between phrases. These orchestration choices unsettled the smooth, seamless flow of the Germanic symphonic tradition with ruthless efficacy. Stravinsky’s work contains musical materials that slice into one another, and interact and blend with the most brutal edges. This style challenged the musical perspective and logic that dominated European music for centuries prior. The Rite of Spring explodes with a sense of anti- Romanticism, and often shocks the listener with an ever-changing usage of rhythm. Frequently, the seemingly enormous orchestra hammers its clamoring notes in unison. The commotion through-out the piece is on the verge of being out of control, yet Stravinsky takes us to a peak in which we question our own motives.

Conductor Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 version of Rite of Spring was recorded in stereo and known for both clarity and production. Bernstein described The Rite saying, “Only one of your everyday volcanic masterpieces…a miraculous new creation of such originality and power that still today it shocks and overwhelms us.” I’d say “Volcanic,” “miraculous,” “originality,” and “power” are words that might well describe Bernstein’s 1958 recording, too. Bernstein at the time was just taking over the reins of the New York Philharmonic and about to shape it back into the best ensemble it had ever been. The Rite was only the beginning. He translated Stravinsky’s piece with sheer energy, excitement, and thrill, while re-exposing its mastery.

Here’s a video of Bernstein conducting a rehearsal for Rite of Spring.

I chose to compare and contrast the conducting styles of Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa.  Through different techniques, the same piece of music becomes vastly different. The introduction of The Rite opens with an Oboe. In Ozawa’s version, he utilizes a vibrato technique which stresses the uneasiness of the music. Though both the conductors play a piece that last the same amount of time, Ozawa’s version seems to be shorter. The instruments play with the intention to finish, right as it starts playing. Seiji Ozawa also takes more artistic liberties with stylistic approach, while Bernstein’s version may be more true to form.

Vs.

Bernstein-Leonard-7

The opening woodwinds blend with the Oboe and Clarinet to produce an agitated feeling, and listeners are already on the edge of their seats. The intro of The Rite starts off as being melodic, but doesn’t last that way for long. Gradually, a tension builds and the dynamic range grows in intensity. I continually envision a windstorm stirring, as leaves blow on a cold evening. When the weather picks up, the myriad of instruments get into a nerve-wracking conversation. A  bassoon with a throaty, human voice-like quality, has a shrill buzzing timbre that stirs up the rest of the orchestra. The various instruments begin playing louder, and with more intent. In Bernstein’s version, beneath the rigidness, a violin is plucked with a pizzicato technique. This occurs mainly in the left speaker which provides a sense of stereo imaging.  All of a sudden, the “big bad wolf” pops into my mind as the orchestra hammers notes in unison, this time in the right speaker. It sounds as though the instruments with a higher timbre, such as the cellos, violins, violas, and flutes, are the innocent victims being chased by the louder, lower-frequency instruments. The smaller, higher-frequency instruments are doing anything they can to escape from the booming tympani, horns, and basses, but chances aren’t looking so good.  The horns then switch from playing in the right speaker, to the left, and the flutes switch sides as well, ultimately exposing this “wind-storm” of audio mixing. In this recording, the listener may think that they have an idea of where and when an instrument will strike, but everything has a changing face. At this point, many of the instruments are being played with short, abrupt staccato techniques that also swell with powerful dynamic range. The violins suggest desperation as they play incredibly fast. Meanwhile, the rest of the orchestra goes up and down on a roller-coaster of dissonant and bombastic tension.

This piece of music contains stark and extreme changes and shifts in instrumentation. While there should be a definite brash quality, I felt like Seiji Ozawa’s version was much more contained. It didn’t have as many intense jumps in dynamic range, nor did it instill the fear like Bernstein’s or Georg Solti’s version of the piece.  An orchestra should blend while still maintaining clarity, but I felt that Ozawa’s instrumentation blended together too much, and some of the performance was lost as a result. Overall, comparing the two, Seiji Ozawa conducted a much less extreme, easier-to-listen-to account of The Rite of Spring. It seemed that the musicians were merely playing a piece of music, rather than becoming the music. This is what makes the piece of music so compelling in the first place. The listener stops thinking about individual instruments, and begins contemplating entire stories while getting lost in their mind. The piece is about chaos vs. order, and many times we’re not entirely sure where we’re being lead.

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