The Greatest Tempest In History

by David Yearsley, June 12, 2013

The rolling storm that is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring thundered through its hundredth anniversary last Wednesday, the 29th of May. I spent most of the day at 39,000 feet, high above global festivities that included a Rite marathon on New York’s classical music radio station, WQXR, culminating in a live performance of the piece for solo piano by Vicky Chow. Across the Atlantic in Paris fourteen versions of the work were done at the Theâtre des Champs Élysées, where The Rite was first performed a hundred years ago.

At least in the economy cabin, the onboard movie was sadly not the 2010 Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, a biopic duet shot in the Théâtre des Champs Elysées that gives a compelling, if somewhat ponderous, sense of the opening night tumult: the composer smoking as he paces nervously backstage; the impresario Sergei Diaghilev putting a brave face on the wreckage; and the choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky freaking out in the wings; top hats being pulled down over the ears of battling partisans out in the audience.

Neither the in-flight mags nor the SkyMall took heed of the greatest—or at least most documented—tempest in music history. Among the fashions there weren’t any repro headbands as worn by the fertile maidens clad by Nicholas Roerich, the Russian folklorist who developed the scenario of the piece under the working title The Great Sacrifice and who designed the sets and costumes. There was no Stravinsky dance-till-you-drop workout DVD on offer, no War of the Rival Tribes video game for the wee’uns to amuse themselves with. And no springtime round dance of the flight attendants during the safety demonstrations nor a sacrifice of the Chosen One under the murderous wheels of the drinks cart.

From Coast to Coast—from Seattle to Detroit to Newark—no signs of the historic day were evident in the airports either: no plaintive bassoon solos seeping from the sports bars; no pulsing, shock chords emanating from the Body Shop; no Brooks Brothers salesmen sporting fake gray beards enacting the stooped and angular Procession of the Sage around the pink button-down shirts and dark blue pin-striped suits. The travel industry went about its choreographies of flight and commerce, oblivious to the echoes of history also in the air.

An airplane is the wrong place to be for the Rite of Spring, that most earthbound of works with its the stamping, pawing, clawing at the ground, its the smashing of self and soil, its the longing for death and regeneration at ground level.

The Augurs of Spring, the opening dance music of the Rite that still shocks—or, at the very least, thrills—a hundred years on, bursts forth after the Introduction with its plaintive bassoon solo, one of the most famous passages in all classical music, whether a hundred years old or a thousand. Stravinsky gave the first dance scene a visceral, violent music. The superimposition of E major and E-flat major chords in a succession of wild, unpredictably accented eighth notes destroys any sense of rhythmic hierarchy: phrase and periodicity are reduced to pure nerve-fraying pulse. The oompah of the nineteenth-century ballet or the ceaseless one-two-three of the waltz are all about civilization and the projection of a future, both immediate and long-term: the regularity of cultivated dance steps moving gracefully under the domed ceiling of a theatre safe against the elements for centuries to come. The Agurs seem to bring all that crashing down.

Extreme harmonic dissonance was not new. The dark often violent dissonance of Arnold Schoenberg and his followers was already descending on the musical world by 1913. Their revolutionary course for new music had led to a real riot—one that made the Paris contretemps seem like harmless pantomime—at one of their concerts in Vienna two months before the Rite of Spring. The defining chord Stravinsky’s Petrushka of 1911 combined C major and F-sharp Major triads in blindingly bright arrays.

But what was so shocking about Stravinsky’s music was its rejection of traditional musical temporality. This music holds the listener hostage to the moment. It abducts one from the comforts of long-term thinking and hearing. In place of the decorous and expected unspooling of time that had made Western music tick for centuries, the Rite projects the most intense sense of clinging to the now and doing so on the edge of the abyss. With each chord of the Augurs it’s as if life and death, regeneration and annihilation, collide again and again, some of these accents bursting from the texture with explosive force.

The bitonal blasts are paradoxical—a modernist evocation of primitivism conjured through the most sophisticated management of meter and orchestration. Prehistoric Russian tribes did not dance to symphony orchestras. From this point of view the ballet was pure nonsense. Just imagine things from the opposite end of the spurious narrative of civilization: an Ogallala Drumming Circle breaks out into Beethoven’s Ninth. The Times of London critic, writing after performances in the English capital in the Summer of 1913, pithily diagnosed the dilemma: “If M. Stravinsky had wished to be really primitive, he would have been wise to score his ballet for nothing but drums.”

When Stravinsky first played the Rite of Spring for Diaghilev at the piano, the frightened impresario asked his composer how long the dissonant chords of the Augurs of Spring would go on for. Stravinsky replied: “To the very end my dear, to the very end.” Like everything Stravinsky said, that was exaggeration but nonetheless captured a fundamental truth about the piece.

The musicologist Robert Fink has put together a five-minute-long chronological collage of various performance of these epic-making chords from the first recording on a Pleyel pianola roll made by the composer in 1921 to Gustavo Dudamel leading the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in 2010. Along the way there are four versions by Stravinsky, three under the baton of Pierre Monteux, who led the first performance of 1913, and two each by Boulez and Bernstein, among many others. For all its alleged primitivism the effect of this repetitive medley is that of a locomotive lurching forward from one tempo to the next; now somewhat faster now somewhat slower, now more percussive, now more muffled. Is it chugging forward or backwards? Into the future or the past? Or does the train follow a track that simply circles back to its beginning?

Stravinsky liked to displace the blame for the disastrous premiere onto Nijinsky’s choreography and what the composer disparaged as its “knock-kneed Lolitas.” In 1914 a concert performance of the Rite in Pairs was greeted with huge enthusiasm, not withstanding the opinion of the dean of French composers Camille Saint-Saëns, who stormed out of the concert, agreeing with Puccini that Stravinsky was crazy.

As Fink’s loop confirms, the afterlife of the ballet music was as an independent concert work. Given its failure, the ballet was quickly lost, but painstakingly reconstructed some seventy years later by dance historian Millicent Hodson and presented by the Joffrey Ballet in the 1980s. Hodson’s version of the work was also mounted by the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and Ballet in 2003 under the direction of Valery Gergiev and that production is available on Youtube in all its vibrant, violent color.

David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at dgyearsley@gmail.com.

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