Brutal Virtuosity: Grappling with Stravinsky’s Rite

“It doesn’t matter what notes you play,” I said, “as long as you play them at the right time.” It was 2004 and my violinist friend and I were driving to the first rehearsal of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Neither of us had played the work before and both of us were marveling at sonic wonder of The Rite.

I had always been afraid of Stravinsky’s seminal masterpiece. A collection of cacophony and dissonance, it was a work that I could never find approachable. So, when it showed up on the Huntsville (Alabama) Symphony’s season, I took the gig with more than a little trepidation.

After all, this was the work that, at its premiere, whipped the audience into such a frenzy the conductor could scarcely keep the orchestra together. Some factions in the crowd whooped their approval; others jeered in protest. That evening in late May at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris has become the most infamous first performance in classical music history.

Riot in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, 1923. (via therestisnoise.com)

As my violinist friend and I drove to that first rehearsal, a recording of The Rite blared on the car stereo—she had her score in hand; I had my hands on the steering wheel. What an imposing piece, we both agreed. We’ll get through the week, but we don’t have to love it. A check awaits us when this is all said and done.

Then the rehearsal began. In an instant, chaos became organized. Cacophony made sense when attached to even the oddest of time signatures (11/4; 9/16). Dissonance was celebrated to the point of revelry. The savagery and raw, primal power of The Rite left me at once breathless and begging for more. Within that first two-and-a-half hour rehearsal, it became my favorite piece of classical music.

The Rite begins with a bassoon solo, pitched in the uppermost reaches of the instrument’s range, which gives way to angular chords with lopsided accents in the strings. From there it builds in layers and waves with the full orchestra—like the bassoon in the opening solo—stretching the outer limits of what is possible to play. Remarkably, Stravinsky achieves this with an economy of notes. It sounds like a thick texture, but upon analysis the harmonies are rather simple. Open. Fresh.

And it’s not just Stravinsky’s music that is innovative. Vaslav Nijinsky’s angular, folk-inspired choreography plays a significant role as well. The movements are not smooth. They are movements of the people: a Russian peasant girl who dances herself to death. A pagan ritual, to be sure, but is there room for self-expression among the sacrifice?

One rehearsal and I was seduced by The Rite. Three rehearsals and two performances and I became an addict. Since that first encounter, I have sought out and attended as many concerts featuring the work as possible. The Atlanta Symphony, the National Symphony, the St. Louis Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and especially since moving here to Southern California, the Los Angeles Philharmonic which, under former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, has made The Rite of Spring its signature. The LA Phil opened Walt Disney Concert Hall with The Rite in 2003, and in a couple of weeks, Gustavo Dudamel will begin his fourth season as music director with the piece.

I am not alone in my devotion to The Rite. But what is it about this astonishing masterpiece that drives people to obsession? Composer Timothy Andres says it’s Stravinsky’s “brutal virtuosity” that draws us in. The way he “wields the orchestra like a dangerous weapon.” The Rite, Andres says, “is a musical superhero’s first display of his full powers.”

Composer Nico Muhly says the premiere of The Rite in 1913 was “like hitting a huge gong in Paris then, whose resonances and overtones are still sounding all over the world.”

Both Andres and Muhly call The Rite “badass.” Both say the piece hasn’t aged a bit.

There are some works of art that transcend space and time. Works that will at the same time seem modern and timeless no matter how new or old they are. Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is one of those works. Next year, The Rite turns 100 years old and yet, this is a work that feels as though it could have been written just yesterday.

For a work of art to be truly great it must exhibit these timeless qualities. It must be able to maintain its relevance beyond a certain era…beyond that brief moment when its aesthetic may be fashionable or shocking. But more than that, a transcendent work of art demands a response.

In the more than two dozen questions that comprise her “Creative Autobiography,” Twyla Tharp references “successful creative acts.” While I quibble with the semantics of whether it is possible for creativity to be deemed a success or failure, what the eminent dancer and choreographer must certainly be referencing, if even only obliquely, is this notion that creativity—well-harnessed and properly expressed—does not exist in a vacuum.

No matter how one feels about The Rite, after experiencing it, ambivalence is not an option. Just as it was not possible for me to simply play the gig in Huntsville and get paid, it is not possible to hear the music and feel nothing.

To me, what makes The Rite of Spring work is that it is a reflection of life. Composer Nico Muhly says The Rite achieves “the full snarl of human experience.” Life is a struggle for order among chaos. Life chews us up and spits us out. It throws us challenges in 7/16 time. Life is not beautiful. Or easy. Or symmetrical. Or refined. Stravinsky manages to capture this most basic essence of our existence in his music and, in the span of a half-hour, forces us to grapple with our own individual reality.

That he doesn’t provide us with the answer himself is where the true art lies.

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10 thoughts on “Brutal Virtuosity: Grappling with Stravinsky’s Rite

  1. The last few months, I’ve been working on an animated graphical score of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Last week I completed the first part:

    Enjoy!

    Stephen Malinowski
    Music Animation Machine
    stephenmalinowski.com

  2. I developed my own sytesm which was semi-software, and then I found Variations. I am looking for more information on the use of Variations and if anyone has used the server based version. I could not get through anyone on the original team at Indiana University. I will share what I have done when I have posted it on my blog. Will keep you informed.

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  3. I remember when you were in Collegedale, your enthusiasm for certain 20th century composers – Shostakovich, Phillip Glass – kept me listening even when they were challenging and even when nobody else around seemd to liked them much. Thank you.

    I love the Rite! A friend of mine at Newbold College, a Jamaican composer and arranger of gospel songs that used a lot of dissonance, said to me one time “Stravinsky was a jazz musician!” I think there’s something to that. He brings a lot of good stuff into classical.

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