unlocking the novel
a guide to modernism and postmodernism
Rite of Spring:
and connecting Stravinsky's music to the modernist period
listening to the music of the pre- and post-World War I era, many
connections can be drawn between the music and literature.
Connections can be drawn between all of the art forms of the period.
At the center of it all was Paris. At this time, Paris was a
blossoming center of contemporary art where artists from many
different genres intermingled. Similar
themes of disillusionment and desensitization began to surface in
literature, music, and the visual arts.
few connections exist in being able to understand or decode what
these artists were trying to accomplish.
First, it is important to understand the history of the
period. Knowing what kind of environmental and societal influences there
were on the artist at the time is important.
Second, understanding the history of the artist is crucial,
as is knowing what kinds of events in the person’s life might have
influenced his or her works. Third,
it might help to research the innovations that the artist has made
in his or her works. Last, it is important to take time when listening to this music.
One must take the time to read the book again after the first
reading. In music, the same goes: the more times you listen to the
piece, the more you will take away from your listening.
rest of this page will be dedicated to understanding Stravinsky’s
ballet, Le Sacre du Printemps,
or, in English, The Rite
of Spring. It is my hope
to explain some aspects this music so that the reader may find a way
to decode other works of art from the same time period.
The Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky
Stravinsky was born June 17, 1882. His
childhood was one filled with musical opportunities.
His father, a fine bass singer, encouraged the young
Stravinsky to visit the ballet and opera regularly.
At the age of nine, Stravinsky began to study piano and
harmony and would later begin his studies of composition and
counterpoint. In 1902,
Stravinsky met Russian nationalist composer Nicholi Rimsky-Korsakov,
who took a liking to Stravinsky and offered to tutor Stravinsky.
Shortly after their first meeting, Stravinsky’s father
died. Rimski-Korsakov would
become a father-like figure to Stravinsky, as well as his teacher.
In 1905, Stravinsky completed his university studies and
married his cousin Katerina Nossenko.
this point, Stravinsky was beginning to gain some attention as a
composer. Sergey Diaghilev, a prominent promoter of Russian ballet in Paris,
would soon recognize Stravinsky’s talent and commission him to
write multiple ballets for his company.
Of these projects, Stravinsky’s first large-scale
commission, The Firebird,
was based on the Russian fairy tale of the Firebird.
After completing The
Firebird, Stravinsky soon wrote his second ballet, Petrushka.
It was during the period of writing Petrushka that Stravinsky
began to conceive writing The Rite of Spring.
saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite; sage elders, seated in a
circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death.
They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.”
– Igor Stravinsky (1911)
one had ever heard music like it before; it seemed to violate all
the most hallowed concepts of beauty, harmony, tone and expression.
Never had an audience heard anything so brutal, savage, aggressive
and apparently chaotic; it hit the public like a hurricane, like
some uncontrollable primeval force." – Roman Vlad after
witnessing the premier of The Rite of Spring
premier of The Rite of Spring was a volatile event. At the premiere, the worlds of the old traditionalists clashed with
the new “avant-garde." Quiet protest to the music began even
in the prelude music, and as soon as the dancers appeared performing
Vaslav Nijinsky’s intensely provocative choreography, chaos
protested the intensely dissonant music and what they thought were
vulgar gestures of the dancers. Meanwhile,
supporters of the music yelled for silence.
“Shut up you Berkley Square bitches!” yelled Stravinsky’s
friend and composer Florent Schmitt. As the riot continued, Stravinsky left the performance and went
backstage, where he found Nijinsky (the choreographer) shouting
numbers to his dancers because the dancers could no longer hear the
orchestra over the riot. The
event was truly a clash between the old and the new.
Surprisingly, the following performances of the ballet were
well received, and a year later Stravinsky was carried triumphantly
through the streets of Paris after a performance.
Sacre du Printemps (The Rite
Part One: Adoration of the Earth
The Augers of Spring (Dance of the Young Girls)
Spring Round Dances
Games of the Rival Tribes
Procession of the Wise Elder
Adoration of the Earth
Dance of the Earth
Part Two: The Sacrifice
Mystical Circles of the Young Girls
Glorification of the Chosen Victim
Summoning of the Ancestors
Ritual of the Ancestors
first step to understanding Le Sacre du Printemps or The
Rite of Spring is to know that it is not about a pleasant spring
morning. The ballet depicts a
pagan sacrificial dance and its relationship to the beginnings of
solo bassoon intoning a Lithuanian folk-tune at the very top of its
range immediately establishes the ritualistic nature of the entire
score. This section is
abruptly curtailed by the stamping rhythms of the Dance
of the Young Girls, whose irregular accents and muscular energy
spill over into the breathlessly frenetic Mock
Abduction. The appearance
of the Spring Round Dances brings a temporary respite, although its heavy,
dragging ostinati grind their way towards yet another pulverizing
climax, which in turn releases the whirlwind aggressions of the Games of the Rival Tribes. The
Procession of the Wise Elder is
briefly intoned by four horns in unison, after which the Dance of the Earth brings the First Part to a highly agitated,
shattering conclusion. Part Two opens impressionistically, with an
extended Introduction whose
half-lit textures eerily suggest the arrival of a new dawn over a
barren landscape. The Mystical
Circles of the Young Girls extends this material still further,
the score prescribes strings divided into thirteen parts.
The Glorification of the Chosen Victim savagely interrupts the
pseudo-liturgical tone, leading to a massive timpani crescendo
opening the Summoning of the
Ancestors, which combines with the Rituals
to force the tension to a bursting point.
The final Sacrificial
Dance, is a devastating musical portrait of obsessive self
destruction which erupts with a primeval force of almost hypnotic
Julian Haylock 1993 (Taken from liner notes of recording by
Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic)
Rite of Spring was written over a period of two years. In the work, Stravinsky employed a number of new compositional
methods. Unlike just about
all composers from the past musical eras, Stravinsky abandons
traditional uses of phrasing. In
the past, almost all phrasing in music had centered on groupings of
four. Sing "Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star" to yourself while
counting in your head 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, etc. As you may have
noticed, it all adds up into groups of four, four small groups of
four and one big one, before the tune starts over.
For some reason, the human ear finds it aurally pleasing to
hear things in fours. It
gives the music a sense of completion and symmetry.
But Stravinsky throws these groupings out the window (there
are some exceptions). In the opening of “The
Augers of Spring,” his rhythmic groupings are 9+2+6+3+4+5+3.
The fascinating part about this particular breakdown is that
it adds up to 32, a very symmetrical number in music (also divisible
by 4 and 16). One of the main
reasons for the adding to 32 was so that the music and the
choreography for the dancers would line up.
The most important thing to understand with Stravinsky’s
use of rhythm is that it is unsymmetrical and that he
wants you to feel unsettled and disturbed.
addition to his use of incongruous rhythms, Stravinsky ceases to
adhere to traditional rules of tonality.
One aspect of tonality is that it can be viewed as the sense
of motion in music that keeps the music moving from one place to the
next, in a non-rhythmic sense. Once
again, sing "Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star" to yourself and
stop on the word “you” ("Twinkle-twinkle little star / how
I wonder what you" [stop]). You
might be feeling a slightly unsettling feeling.
This is because the music wants to resolve itself (to the
word/note “star”). Stravinsky uses these kinds of dissonance and tension throughout
his music (just on a much more grandiose scale than "Twinkle-Twinkle
Little Star"). Once
again, Stravinsky wants you to feel these tensions and to be
unsettled by them. This is not music to help you fall asleep at night.
a chord is so dissonant that the ear cannot sense a possible
resolution, the music stands still. Stravinsky’s
achievement, and it was unprecedented, was to give a crucial
structural importance to rhythm instead of harmony, and to use the
tension of dissonance to fuel this powerful engine further.” -
other elements to keep in mind when listening to this music: it is a
ballet, and there is a sequence of events.
It may help to form a mental picture in your head of what you
might be thinking is going on, maybe picture in your head what you
think the ballet dancers might be doing.
Stravinsky’s music of this period, especially those of his
ballets, were objective in nature. It
is objective in that they were musical representations of concrete
music depicted a different picture of humanity. The use of dissonance created a more realistic representation of
the actions of the ballet. This
idea runs true in the works of modernist novelists.
The novelists sought to create a more realistic
representation of reality, in reaction to the depictions of the
realist novel. They left
tensions in their novels and left stories unfinished, much like
Stravinsky’s music. Stravinsky’s drastic change in musical style also reflected the
drastic changes in perspectives that society was experiencing at the
time. Although I will not go
into extreme detail about the many other connections between the
music, literature, and visual art of the time, I will point out that
each of these art forms do depict the world at that time and that
they are all unified by the fact that they are portraits of their
societies of the time. I do
encourage the reader to look for them through study of each of these
different art forms.
sites concerning Stravinsky and modernism
American Modernism Seen and Heard
Classical.Net on Igor Stravinsky
last note on 20th-century music
the world of concert music, dramatic innovations emerged during the
first three decades of the twentieth century: the emancipation from
the idea of dissonance; continuity and predictability in rhythm;
polytonality; atonality and twelve-tone music. However, these all
had the effect of alienating the large audience for music inherited
from the nineteenth century. Despite critical acclaim for these
novel strategies for writing music, the twentieth century turned its
back on this new music. It embraced the world of concert music as a
museum designed for the art of recreation. In this century, the
performance of music from the past has held center stage. . . . By
comparing these American composers with their counterparts in art,
rather than with their predecessors in music, a new avenue of
appreciation and affection can be opened up to a vital, powerful,
and too often overlooked American aesthetic legacy.” – Leon
to unlocking the modern novel.