Program notes: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

Thursday, August 17, 2023 , 6:30 PM

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Suite from Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66a

Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)

Excerpts from Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66a

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Composed: 1888-1889
Length: c. 11 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam), harp, and strings

Tchaikovsky’s beloved score to Sleeping Beauty is the second of his three ballets (in between Swan Lake and The Nutcracker). Moscow theater director Ivan Vsevolozhsky provided the artistic vision and resources, and, most importantly, brought together talents from multiple realms to create a large-scale production. Tchaikovsky biographer Roland John Wiley writes:

[Vsevolozhsky] dreamed of the perfect ballet, with music elevated to the level of artistry his dancers and choreographers had already achieved. When his last official ballet composer retired in 1886, Vsevolozhsky seized the moment: he called a meeting with Tchaikovsky and first balletmaster Marius Petipa. Thus began the greatest collaboration of Tchaikovsky’s career.

Indeed, Petipa coordinated very closely with Tchaikovsky, producing a robustly structured ballet with 30 individual numbers broken into a Prologue and three Acts. When the ballet premiered in St. Petersburg in 1890, an 8-year-old Igor Stravinsky sat transfixed in the audience, an experience he later explained was deeply formative.

Vsevolozhsky wrote the scenario for the ballet himself, adapting the fairy tale collected by Charles Perrault in the 17th century. The basic outlines of the story are familiar to anyone who knows the Disney classic (which also uses the Tchaikovsky score). The party for Princess Aurora’s christening included her six fairy godmothers, but a seventh, Carabosse, was furious for not being invited, casting a curse only partially mitigated by the Lilac Fairy’s counterspell (sleep, rather than death). Fast forward 16 years, and Princess Aurora indeed falls to the curse, which puts the entire kingdom to sleep until Prince Desiré kisses Aurora 100 years later. All awaken, there is a wedding celebration, and everyone lives happily ever after. Tchaikovsky considered the music to be among his very finest works.

Although Tchaikovsky spoke of extracting a concert suite from the music of Sleeping Beauty, he could never decide on exactly which numbers to include in it—he really loved the entire score. Ultimately, it was up to his publisher to determine, and the suite was compiled in 1899 after Tchaikovsky’s death. Tonight’s program features the opening two movements of the suite: the brief Introduction that leads into music for the Lilac Fairy, and the Rose Adagio, in which four suitors each present a rose to the Princess.

What to listen for

  • The menacing Introduction, with its gawky repeated leaps, represents the evil fairy Carabosse who in her anger casts the curse upon the Princess.
  • The Lilac Fairy music, with its arching lines in the woodwinds, comes as she provides her gentle antidote to Carabosse.
  • Imagine the scene here as four suitors vie for the attention of the Princess. In this notoriously challenging scene, the dancer-Princess must balance on one foot, en pointe, as the music steps higher and higher to its dramatic climax.

The Rite of Spring

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Composed: 1910-1912
Length: c. 33 minutes
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), piccolo and alto flute, 4 oboes (4th doubling English horn) and English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), e-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 4 bassoons (4th doubling contrabassoon) and contrabassoon, 8 horns (7th and 8th doubling Wagner tubas), 4 trumpets and piccolo trumpet, 3 trombones and bass trumpet, 2 tubas, 2 timpani, 4 percussion (bass drum, tam-tam, triangle, tambourine, güiro, cymbals, crotales), and strings

There are only a handful of pieces in the repertoire that have come to represent an entire era of classical music, influenced the work of generations of composers, and introduced such innovation that the musical world was changed forever. The Rite of Spring is one such work. With the encouragement of Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes and pagan scholar Nicholas Roerich, Stravinsky composed music to depict the rituals of an ancient Slavic tribe based on a general libretto worked out with the help of Roerich.

To evoke primitivism, Stravinsky developed a wholly unique harmonic, rhythmic, and thematic style. Simple harmonies, far removed from the complexities of Wagnerian Romanticism, were discordantly juxtaposed to create huge swaths of sound projected through driving rhythms and bold accentual patterns. The tone colors were also highly unusual, resulting in a new soundscape through the use of a huge orchestra, unconventional instrument ranges, and a constantly varying array of instrumental combinations. In short, Stravinsky could hardly have composed music that was more transporting: in hearing The Rite of Spring, we enter his world and leave ours behind. This total immersion is not dissimilar to the fairy tale atmosphere that Stravinsky experienced when he heard the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty as a young child.

The novelty and ferocity of the score led to the most scandalous premiere in the history of Western music, occurring in Paris in May 1913. Through the opening movements, the audience gradually grew more and more agitated and appalled with the music they were hearing and the ungainly, herky-jerky dancing of Nijinsky’s shocking choreography. The patrons eventually started expressing their distaste with hisses, catcalls, and shouting matches. The scene turned into an out-and-out riot, with the music hardly being heard at all. Despite this disaster, however, further performances went forward with much better results as people began to recognize the monumental achievement Stravinsky had realized with his work. And thus began the modern era in classical music. (Learn more about the public’s reception of the work and the legacy of The Rite of Spring on pages 66-67.)

What to listen for

  • Derived from a Lithuanian folk tune, the opening melody, in the upper reaches of the bassoon’s register, was said by Stravinsky to represent “a profound mystic sensation which comes to all things at the hour when nature seeks to renew its various forms of life.”
  • The savage Dance of the Young Girls is scored in a familiar double meter nearly throughout, but the unpredictable pattern of accents creates an irresistibly dynamic rhythmic profile that sweeps the dance forward.
  • Perhaps the most ferocious movement of the piece, Ritual of Abduction, is punctuated by frequent bass drum strikes that seem to reinvigorate the orchestra with each blast.
  • The mysterious, muted introduction to the second section lightens the texture considerably, deploying a solo violin, four solo violas, and five solo cellos at one point.
  • Stravinsky describes the Mystic Circles of the Young Girls as “the secret night games of the young maidens of the sacred hill. One of them is condemned by fate to be sacrificed.”
  • The work culminates in a frenzy of violent energy in Sacrificial Dance in which the chosen one dances herself to death. At the end, a rising flute figure represents the ancestors catching the girl just before she is about to collapse and raising her up toward the sky.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi