Today marks the 100th anniversary of the violent birth of the most controversial, influential and important piece of classical music written in the 20th Century, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.
When this piece was premiered, at an illustrious Paris concert hall attended by the elegant, sophisticated glitterati of the age (including Jean Cocteau and Claude Debussy), it caused a riot. A ballet
. There was stunned laughter, shouts and cat-calls, people throwing things at the stage and fist fights breaking out. A police presence had to attend the second half to subdue the audience. No one had seen or heard anything like this new art and it was the scandal of the age and is still being written and talked about today.
The ballet tells the story of a pre-history pagan Russia, where an ancient rite is performed to usher in the Spring, where a young girl is chosen and ultimately dances herself to death as a sacrifice. To portray this pre-civilisation ceremony, Stravinsky's music (coupled with Nijinsky's equally daring choreography) tore up the rule book, using unprecedented harmonies, structures, orchestrations and, most startlingly, rhythms. Before Stravinsky, the rhythms of classical music were almost uniformly in standard 3/4 or 4/4 time with a steady pulse or meter. In The Rite, strange key signatures change at almost every bar and asymmetrical, jarring syncopations throw the listener this way and that like a rag doll. This is classical music as heavy metal.
Don't worry if on first listen it confuses and upsets you, you're in good company. It took me a long while before I was familiar enough with it for its endless wonders to reveal themselves to me. There are just so many
ideas and musical sound worlds, textures and colours scattered through the piece. Stravinsky painted pictures with the orchestra in a few bars what other composers would exploit in entire works in years to come.
One of my favourite things to do when listening is finding the seeds for so many later pieces by the myriad of musicians that were influenced by it. I can count at least five John Williams scores (Star Wars, Jaws and others) at various points, you can clearly hear how he studied and drew from the vivid soundscape Stravinsky conjured up. With film music making this kind of dissonant modernism more familiar to our ears, it's difficult to imagine how utterly new and abstract this auditory assault would have been to the music lovers of the early 20th Century.
For further reading, try these articles: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2013/may/29/stravinsky-rite-of-springhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2013/may/27/rite-of-spring-100-years-stravinsky
And this great Radiolab episode about how sound affects us, where they have a section about The Rite: http://www.radiolab.org/2007/sep/24/ #Stravinsky #TheRiteOfSpring #Music #ClassicalMusic