One hundred years ago on Wednesday, the score that revolutionized music in the 20th century had its premiere at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris. The first performance of the ballet "Le Sacre du Printemps" – or "The Rite of Spring," as most of us know it – provoked the most notorious riot in the history of music.
The double whammy of Igor Stravinsky's groundbreaking score and Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography, at that May 29, 1913, performance by members of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, caused a scandal like no other before or since. Fistfights broke out. Police had to be called. Nijinsky had to scream the step numbers to the dancers from the wings. Audience members threw things into the pit, where conductor Pierre Monteux ("apparently impervious and as nerveless as a crocodile," as Stravinsky observed) kept his grip on the orchestra to the end.
A century after its birth, "The Rite of Spring" has lost none of its artistic importance, aesthetic influence or historical reach.
Indeed, cultural historians cite the 1913 evening on which Stravinsky's "pictures of pagan Russia" burst on an unsuspecting world as one of the starting dates of modernism, along with 1907, the year Picasso painted "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," and 1922, when James Joyce wrote "Ulysses."
This music – with its pulverized folk melodies layered on top of one another, jagged repeating rhythms, slashing accents, wildly shifting meters, grinding dissonances and convulsive orchestral violence – must have been as unsettling to listeners back then as another revolutionary masterpiece, Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, must have seemed to the concert public of 1805 Vienna. At a single stroke, Stravinsky broke most, if not all, the rules that had governed Western art music up to that point.
Later composers – think of Edgard Varese, Bela Bartok, Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, Olivier Messiaen, Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, the late Henri Dutilleux, and many others – had Stravinsky to thank for emancipating rhythm and harmony and making the "Rite" a portal to the 20th century.
It's significant that Stravinsky backed away from the implications of his own creation. Although he went on to compose numerous works of genius after the "Rite," he never again attempted anything as radical.
If "Sacre du Printemps" is infrequently performed as a ballet, it has long since become one of the cornerstones of the symphonic repertory, and its more than 100 recordings make it one of the most recorded of all 20th century works.
Now that we know it so well, the "Rite" has sacrificed some of its shock value, at least in live performance. It's not that the work has changed – it's us.
The demystifying began when scholars picked apart the Russian folk sources on which Stravinsky drew and whose influence he later downplayed. The process continued when orchestras began treating the score as just another big, crowd-pleasing orchestral showpiece. How could the "Rite" retain its bite when even beginning conducting students could master Stravinsky's furiously shifting meters and symphony musicians could reproduce them flawlessly?
Familiarity has bred a kind of coziness. But when has that not been true of the vast majority of art works once considered avant-garde?
My first experience with the "Rite" came in the early 1960s when I was growing up in southern California and caught Walt Disney's "Fantasia" at my neighborhood movie theater. A heavily condensed version (played by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra) accompanied the 1940 film's famous battling-dinosaur sequence. Stravinsky's music both disturbed and fascinated me. I wanted to hear more of his music. Years later, while studying a score I came across at a music shop in Los Angeles, I marveled at the mind that could conceive those gnarly, polytonal chords and cubist rhythmic collages. Suddenly my career path was clear.
A pity that no Chicago orchestra will be performing "The Rite of Spring" on the exact 100th anniversary of this epochal landmark. The Chicago Symphony played the piece in November; the Grant Park Orchestra will end its summer festival series with it in August; and the Chicago Philharmonic will launch its fall season with it a month later. Fortunately one local radio station didn't forget the date: WFMT-FM 98.7 will broadcast of "The 100-Year Shock Wave," Jon Tolansky's documentary about the "Rite," at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
You can also go online and catch a fascinating animated treatment of the score by music synthesist Jay Bacal and animator Stephen Malinowski. Pitched primarily to non-musicians but useful to all who would know how this musical landmark is structured, their version uses animated bands of color, moving in synch with an uncredited orchestral recording, to clarify the inner workings of this epoch-defining masterpiece (musanim.com/rite).
A different source of elucidation is the solo piano arrangement of the "Rite" created and recorded by pianist Jon Kimura Parker and newly issued on his own CD label; he makes the piece sound rather like wrong-note Debussy, fascinating if far too tame.
Or you can seek out a copy of "Le Sacre du Printemps: 100th Anniversary Collectors Edition." Decca's bargain box of 20 CDs contains every recording of the Stravinsky ever issued over the last 60 years by companies now joined under the Universal umbrella (chiefly London/Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips and Mercury).
Does anyone other than a diehard collector really need to own 35 different recorded performances of the orchestral version, along with three of the composer's version for piano duet? Licensing restrictions no doubt account for the set's glaring omissions. None of the three versions conducted by Stravinsky is included. Absent as well are any recordings by Stokowski (who gave the American premieres of the "Rite," both as a concert piece and a ballet); Igor Markevitch (Diaghilev's last protégé); or Robert Craft (Stravinsky's amanuensis and favorite interpreter in later years).
Leonard Bernstein is represented only by his 1982 Israel Philharmonic reading, which is greatly inferior to his volcanic New York Philharmonic recording from 1958, the one that prompted Stravinsky to exclaim, "Wow!" Fortunately Sony Classical has just reissued "Lenny I" in a freshly remastered, handsomely packaged CD edition. This is a basic library "Rite" if there ever was one.
I haven't taken the time to plow through each and every recording in the Decca box. But of the ones I have heard, those I most admire include Georg Solti's electric Chicago Symphony traversal (1974), along with recordings by Claudio Abbado, Antal Dorati (1959 stereo version), Pierre Boulez, Valery Gergiev and Gustavo Dudamel. The Gergiev is notable for returning the score to its Russian roots. Remember what I wrote earlier about the "Rite" no longer feeling dangerous? Gergiev's does.
So, happy birthday, "Rite of Spring"! You've worn your years a damn sight better than any centenarian I've ever known. I have no doubt whatsoever that attention still will be paid 100 years from now, and long after that as well.
Sharps and flats
The music world is mourning French composer Henri Dutilleux, who died in Paris on May 22, at 97. His music subscribed to no modernist school yet it was unmistakably contemporary in its free treatment of tonality, form and texture. This was especially true of his small but rich body of orchestral works, several of which the Chicago Symphony has performed in recent years, including his Symphony No. 2 ("Le Double"), "Metaboles" and cello concerto "Tout un monde lontain" – all luminous and exquisitely crafted.
More than 200 area violin and cello students – all of them enrolled in the Suzuki-Alegre Strings music education program at Chicago's Merit School of Music – will gather for a free concert at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Pilsen neighborhood. Among those taking part will be the 18 Merit string ensemble members who represented the city and the U.S. in the recent Suzuki Method World Convention in Japan. Sunday's "Stringtacular" will be held at the Harrison Park Fieldhouse, 1824 S. Wood St.; 312-786-9428, meritmusic.org.
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