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The Rite of Spring
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The Rite of Spring

The Rite of Spring is a ballet with music by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Its Russian title, Vesna svyashchennaya literally means Spring the Sacred - the English title is translated from the French that the work was premiered under, Le Sacre du printemps. It has the subtitle "Pictures from Pagan Russia".

The work was composed between 1911 and 1913 for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. It was premiered on May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées; in Paris and was conducted by Pierre Monteux. 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.

At its premiere in Paris, there were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. This eventually degenerated into a near-riot, which has made it one of the most notorious premieres in music history. It has been suggested that the disruption was as much due to Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography and the overall scenario (which was about pagan sacrifice, rather than the usual genteel ballet themes) as it was to Stravinsky's frequently brutal and violent music. Another possibility for the disruption could have been a paid claque in the audience, hired by Stravinsky' detractors to transform the premiere into a colossal failure.

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. 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 inot 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 (C3). (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 C3 cycle is initiated by a minor third that is plainly diatonic and tonal," (p.83) and thus The Rite of Spring has something in comm 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 work is divided into two parts with the following scenes:

Part I: Adoration of the Earth

Part II: The Sacrifice

The piece is scored for a large orchestra, including eight French horns, four trumpets, a piccolo trumpet and a bass trumpet, three trombones, two tubas and large woodwind, string and percussion sections. 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.

Stravinsky made a version of the score for piano four hands (that is, two people playing at one piano), and 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 today.

However, most people will have met the Rite of Spring through Walt Disney's Fantasia, a 1941 animated movie showing imaginative illustrations to classical music. The Rite of Spring is the fourth piece to be played, illustrated by a "a pageant, as the story of the growth of life on Earth" according to the narrator. 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.


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