The Back Story
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) lived a long, eventful life, and ended up being one of the most visible and celebrated composers of the twentieth century. Born in Oranienbaum, Russia, growing up in St. Petersburg, Stravinsky studied privately with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who encouraged his interest in exotic subjects. Stravinsky’s early compositions attracted the attention of Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, who took Stravinsky under his wing (if such a thing was possible for Little Igor) and commissioned several ballets from him. Stravinsky and his young family moved to the West, living first in Switzerland, then France. When Fascist unrest spread across Europe in the 1930s, the Stravinskys emigrated again, this time to the United States. They settled in Los Angeles, and Stravinsky became an American citizen in 1945. He composed in many different styles during his lifetime – a cosmopolitan outlook coming naturally to one who moved around as much as he had – but he never stopped creating music that attracted great choreographers: beginning in the 1920s, Russian dance master George Balanchine took a special interest in Stravinsky’s work, which continued after Balanchine came to the U.S. and established a number of ballet companies, including the New York City Ballet; in all Balanchine choreographed 39 of Stravinsky’s works.
Thanks to several excellent new recordings, I’ve been listening to a lot of early Stravinsky. When you mention Stravinsky to most classical fans, they probably think first of his early ballets. You learn something more about a fan when they tell you exactly which ballet popped into their head. If they name The Firebird, your person is probably somewhat conservative. Given a choice, they’d rather hear Swan Lake or Coppélia. If, on the other hand, they mention Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), maybe you’ve met someone who thinks real ballet music began with that 1913 riot in Paris – the May 29 premiere in which members of the audience became (shall we say) unduly restive.
The story of the riot has perhaps unduly influenced modern popular opinion about Le Sacre, if not about Stravinsky himself. People may come to this pathbreaking work expecting a degree of brutality that would have been unthinkable, even among the artistic avant-garde, a hundred years ago. This is not some grind-house flick. In fact it begins rather quietly:
That opening bassoon solo is based on a Lithuanian folk melody that Stravinsky had copied out before leaving his home in Ustilug, Ukraine, in 1912; he had already been at work on the music for more than a year. The composer had a little upright piano in his studio at Clarens, Switzerland, and that is where he beat most of the ballet into shape. Although Diaghilev had expected him to keep working on Le Sacre as a follow-up to The Firebird, Stravinsky became interested in developing a sort of piano concerto in which the pianist took the role of a puppet, “suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggi.” The puppet piece became Petrushka, Diaghilev convinced Stravinsky to turn that work into a ballet as well, and Le Sacre was put off until the following season. That’s probably a good thing, because the musical portrayal of the puppet came easily to the composer, but figuring out how to write out the complex rhythms of Le Sacre gave Stravinsky a lot more trouble. He could hear the sounds, and play them on his muted upright, but how could he notate them without giving orchestral players endless headaches?
In the end, Stravinsky did find ways to translate it to paper. Years later, he revised some of the notation so that it looked easier – but the rhythms remained the same irregular roiling, pounding chunks of menace he had concocted back in 1911 and ’12. How did he hold things together? First, by using repeated patterns, ostinati, that undergird much of the action, functioning like rebar deep within the concrete pillars on a bridge. You can already hear one of those ostinati creeping into the Introduction (“Harbingers of Spring”):
And here is the famous chugging, “bitonal” ostinato that launches the next section, “Dance of the Young Girls”:
Did you notice how the two ostinati trade off but almost never occur together? You get one or the other. That chugging figure, scored in the strings, is made up of two chords that ordinarily would never work together – an E major (voiced closely in the cellos and basses) and an E-flat-seventh (violas and second violins). What results is not a chord, “bitonal” or otherwise! It’s just sound. Rhythmic sound.
On top of this, Stravinsky places layers of music that come and go. Most of those layers are short snippets of folk (or folk-like) tunes, simple enough to be combined in various ways, distinctive enough to project over the ostinati. Here are two such ideas, a lyrical flute-based tune and another smooth melody for four trumpets, scored in close harmony and buried deep within the texture:
Sometimes the texture builds up, sometimes it thins out. Always, the ostinati keep chugging along. Even though there’s a scenario of sorts (e.g., sections labeled “Games of Rival Tribes” or “Mystical Circle of the Adolescents”) Stravinsky is not really telling a story. Persons attempting to find a plot will be disappointed. Here’s what we do get: a compelling flow that’s interrupted at surprising moments, plus a lot of cinematic jump-cuts and quick-cuts from one texture / rhythm / motive to another. In other words, interruptions of all sorts. Suspense followed by shock.
Unlike, say, a Beethoven symphony, this music never “develops.” In spite of that, it holds our attention. Listen to this astonishing section, for example. Can you tell where the downbeat falls? Can you figure out how to beat its time, or “count” it?
A paradox: by radically increasing the rhythmic and harmonic complexity of his music, Stravinsky managed to evoke the primitive – prehistoric humanity in all its power and terror. In this general project he was hardly alone. Primitivism was big for a while in early twentieth-century art. It attracted some of the most sophisticated modernist innovators out there. Think Picasso. Think D. H. Lawrence.
I believe they were on to something profound. Insofar as visual artists, for example, went back to the impulses that drove the very first makers of art, they were also forcing themselves to “discover” line, form, color, and texture all over again. Imagine being one of those hominids who first traced the outline of a bull on a cave wall. You’re asking yourself: in order to see a bull, what do my eyes need to see? Is it the shape of the bull’s back? Is it the thrust of his horns? And finally you begin to paint. You’re not so much interested in literal representation. What you want is to feel the bull’s magical presence, his rage and sweat and smell, his power. You create an abstraction that expresses something primal.
And now you understand Stravinsky, holed up in his chateau at Clarens, pounding away at his little piano and seeing things: prehistoric Russian elders leading a dance, a dance that ends in a virgin’s death, a dance that will please the gods and bring a season of good crops and good hunting and many village wives large with child.
I wish I had space to tell you four hundred more of my favorite things about Le Sacre. For example, my percussionist friend in central Illinois who put one measure of it on his answering device, so that anyone trying to leave a message had to hear this – very loudly – first. (It comes right before the “Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One.”):
What I will do instead is suggest some other Stravinsky “primitivisms” that you might like.
First off, Petrushka if you don’t already know it. Petrushka is not really primitivist, if one is being fastidious about terms. Unlike Le Sacre, it has a simple, coherent plot that you can easily follow. It’s chock full of folk and popular music, meant to evoke the sensations of a village fair and the naïve emotions that puppets can express (and, in this case, feel). But you’ll hear some of the same cinematic quick-cutting, and a lot of the gorgeous, unusual instrumental colors that run through Le Sacre and every other ballet Stravinsky ever wrote.
Next, try Les Noces. Very “primitive,” because it takes on the traditions of Russian peasant weddings. Stravinsky emphasizes irony and humor — and the emotional violence just under the surface — with his bare-bones orchestration of four pianos and percussion, and by deconstructing the ritual monologues so that, for example, the bride’s lines may be delivered by a soprano, a tenor, or the whole choir. All the characters say and do exactly what they are expected to say and do. Like Le Sacre, there’s no real story line. Like Petrushka and Le Sacre, Les Noces is crammed with folk and folk-like melodic turns. I think you will like it. Here’s a brief sample:
Next time: Vivaldi. No primitive he, but certainly a man who knew his way around rhythm.
Recommended Recordings (not ranked in any order)
Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). (1) Andrew Litton, Bergen Philharmonic. BIS SACD-1474. SACD/CD, 2011. Paired w/ Petrushka.Also available as a FLAC download. (2) Colin Davis, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Philips 416 498-2. CD, 1976/1993. Paired w/Petrushka. Also reissued in a 2-CD set w/ other works, and available as a FLAC download.
Petrushka. See above, and also (3) Jaap van Zweden, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Exton OVCL-00378. SACD/CD, 2009. Paired w/ Pulcinella and Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Check out the Symphonies, which combine folk melodies with modernist “architecture” and glorious, constantly shifting wind timbres.
Les Noces. (1) Daniel Reuss, RIAS Kammerchor and MusikFabrik. Harmonia Mundi HMC 801913. SACD/CD, 2006. W/ Mass, Cantata. (2) Leonard Bernstein, English Bach Festival Chorus et al. Deutsche Grammophon 423 251-1. CD, 1977/1990. W/ Mass. Also available as a FLAC download. (3) Pokrovsky Ensemble. Nonesuch 79335. CD, 1994. Get this for the voices – they sing as closely to Russian folk style as they can get, which may not be what Stravinsky heard in his own mind’s ear, but! Stunning, in spite of the limited dynamic range and digitized piano sound. Try to hear a live performance.