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Alien Harmonies and jagged rhythms in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring signalled the birth of modern music.

Breaking Sacred Ground



Toward the end of his life, Igor Stravinsky was interviewed for a BBC programme on the impresario Sergei Diaghilev. In 1909, more  than 50 years earlier, Stravinsky had been an unknown student composer in St Petersburg. Having heard heard one of his pieces, Diaghilev “sent round his card with a note, asking me to call… Of course I knew who he was, everyone did, so I went… There was a small entrance hall, I sat and waited… I grew restless. After 20 minutes I got up and moved to the street door. As I grasped the handle, a voice behind me said ‘Stravinsky, priiditse, priiditse’, come in… I’ve often wondered, if I’d opened that door, whether I would have written The Rite of Spring.”

Almost certainly not. Within months, Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to compose a 45-minute ballet. The deadline was terrifyingly close and Stravinsky hadn’t written anything remotely on that scale. But The Firebird made him famous overnight. It was a mark of Stravinsky’s brilliance, then, but also of Diaghilev’s uncanny genius for finding and shepherding great artists. So when Stravinsky suggested a ballet on pagan Russian rites, Diaghilev instantly saw its possibilities.

Proceedings were delayed somewhat because Stravinsky decided to compose a small palate- cleanser first – which turned into another large ballet, Petrushka – but once that was done, late in 1911, he sat down to The Rite.When he finished he knew he had done something extraordinary. He told a friend “It is as if twenty and not two years have passed since The Firebird”, and he was right. The earlier ballet is dazzling but not especially groundbreaking, being firmly rooted in the Russian tradition of Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. Petrushka, the hinge, is more advanced. The Rite is simply unprecedented, almost frighteningly so.

Why? The orchestration, for a start. The very first note is a bassoon solo so high as to be almost unplayable. It remains one of the bassoonist’s great challenges. Similarly, no timpanist had ever been asked to play music so virtuosic or violent. There’s great violence in the harmony, too. Stravinsky had written a famous passage in Petrushka where the trumpets play the same tune in two keys at the same time. And he did this throughout The Rite, smashing together chords that in normal practice have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. Nobody had ever written such nakedly dissonant music.

Such consistent dissonance can cause difficulties. Traditional harmonic grammar is built on a sense of motion, from one chord to a contrasting one. If chords make less sense in relation to each other, though, this sense of musical animation can break down. Stravinsky solved the problem with rhythm. This is the single most original feature of the piece, and it gave him great trouble. He could hear the passages, he could play them, but he took a long time to work out how to write them down.

Western art music hitherto had assumed that rhythm was fundamentally stable. The dependable one-two-three-four of a march might slow down or speed up, but the underlying pulse stayed the same. Stravinsky shattered this notion. In the final dance, the beat changes constantly (imagine a speedometer switching between miles, kilometres or chains per hour). Even where the beat is stable, unpredictability reigns. Close to the start, the strings play a regular pattern of four chords to the bar. The chords are short; all the beats seem equally stressed. Except that every now and then, reinforced by the eight horns, some chords are casually smacked out with a slashing accent. Try marching to this:

1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 TWO 3 FOUR, 1 2 3 4,

1 TWO 3 4, ONE 2 3 4, ONE 2 3 4,

1 TWO 3 4 …

Stravinsky rewrote the rules of music in The Rite, but we don’t listen to it because  it’s academically interesting: we listen to it because it is electrifying. It’s one of the most exciting, viscerally overpowering experiences in music. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was hugely controversial at first. The premiere notoriously sparked a riot in the hall. By 1929, however, Diaghilev could write with immense satisfaction that “The Times says that The Rite is for the twentieth century what Beethoven’s Ninth was for the nineteenth!” And he knew The Rite hadn’t make solely its composer  immortal. There’s something appropriate that when Stravinsky died, he was buried, in Venice, a few plots away from Diaghilev.

- Alastair McKean


Originally published in Phil News 2017 Summer Edition