Concert Notes

Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”

Notes by TŌN bassoonist Kylie Bartlett

Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is a ballet every classical music concert-goer has undoubtedly heard about. Premiered on May 29, 1913 in Paris, the production was unlike anything seen before. The subject matter is terrifying, and the impact it had on audiences was dramatic, to say the least. The dancers were confused and frustrated by the movements, and the music was difficult to follow due to the complex rhythms and melodies. Impresario Sergei Diaghilev and conductor Pierre Monteaux were among the first to hear Stravinsky play the piece on piano, and Monteaux stated bluntly he thought Stravinsky was “raving mad”. He wouldn’t be the only one with this opinion, as the public premiere of the ballet caused quite an uproar. The audience was stunned by the subject matter and nature of the movements, and laughter, gasps, and chattering broke out in the theater throughout the entire show at such a volume that the dancers had trouble hearing the music to stay on track. One year later Monteaux gave the first performance of the ballet in the form of a concert piece, which started a successful history of performances of the work for orchestra alone.

The piece opens with a high bassoon solo, and from a bassoonist’s perspective, this is either our biggest dream or worst nightmare. It is an unusual range for the instrument and evokes an animalistic quality. This is followed by similar sounds from other wind instruments. When the piece was new, even some musicians could not figure out what instrument they heard starting the first section. This contributed even further to the bizarre and unsettling nature of the subject matter. Strange note groupings, extreme registers, and shocking dynamics create an image of nature in a brutal way. The listener can imagine the spring when animals emerge, but there is something darker and disturbing that’s under the surface. Part one, “Adoration of the Earth”, depicts nature and introduces the ritual. Part two, “The Sacrifice”, details the ritual itself and paints a vivid image of what takes place. Even though audiences today know what to expect when it comes to Stravinsky, it is easy to imagine the novelty and scandal it introduced at the time, making way for many new styles and ideas for music in the future.