About to perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on two pianos at the Guildhall’s Milton Court tonight with David Kaplan, and remembered this journal entry which I wrote for Carolina Performing Arts on the occasion of the piece’s centennial. Since it’s not available online anymore, I thought I’d republish it here.
When I was in high school, a friend of mine got the opening bars of the Rite of Spring tattooed on his calf. This struck me as an entirely appropriate response to the piece, for several reasons. I can imagine that making a small sacrifice (a percentage of skin) at the altar of Stravinsky could only be good for one’s compositional development. So much the better that it involved transgression of the law (I suspect my friend was not 18 at the time). And the Rite reflected its own badassery on what is no longer a particularly badass act. For the Rite of Spring is a completely badass piece of music. It’s a musical superhero’s first display of his full powers. This brings with it a satisfying type of emotional thrill: it’s Iron Man strapping on his suit and blasting off for the first time, and our viscera rise in our throats along with him. We forgive the brashness, the arrogance, because in this case it is truly deserved: I listen to the century-old piece of music and think, I could not do that.
What makes matters worse is the poverty of Stravinsky’s materials. Like Frank Gehry’s chain-link fence house, it’s employing a brutal kind of virtuosity. How did he achieve so improbably much with so little? Here’s what I mean: try whistling some of the tunes from the Rite to yourself. Not exactly Brahms’s first symphony, are they? Stravinsky’s melodies tend to encompass four or five pitches, not really going anyplace, but circling around the same figurations in odd, gimpy-sounding groupings. Again, it feels almost insolent: look what I can do with this singularly unpromising handful of notes.
Stravinsky wields the orchestra like a dangerous weapon, with a finesse that belies the savagery of its sound. An incredible percentage of the piece is scored tutti, even in quiet passages, which make them all the more terrifying—a giant chorus of whispers and muttering. The individual parts are also remarkably interesting and involved, an especial accomplishment considering the vast instrumental forces employed. A quick perusal of the score confirms that, yes, the second piccolo is absolutely necessary, and kept quite busy at that; same goes for the second bass clarinet, the second contrabassoon, horns five through eight, and so on. There’s a profligacy to this sort of ensemble, for certain, but here it’s not a case of megalomania. Each timbre is thoroughly unconventional, carefully modulated, underscored, or subverted—it’s not a piece you can hear in your head if you look at the score, because the instruments are used in such unexpected ways.
If all this sounds like a rather cold, unemotional piece, it’s because, in a way, it is. Nothing is traditionally ‘expressive’, in the romantic sense, so there’s no heroic journey from dark to light (or vice versa). Nor is there the kind of harmonic telos that guides a listener through, say, a Mahler symphony. Instead, the dramatic structure relies much more heavily on timing, repetition, and layering. In this way the Rite works much more like a piece of minimalist or post-minimalist music: modular, not developmental. It’s a weirdly short distance from here to Steve Reich’s Drumming (as well as a short jaunt in the opposite direction, to Elliott Carter). I imagine this was what truly disturbed 1912 audiences, even if the sour dissonances and brash, multi-layered timbres were the more obvious scandal. All these elements would figure importantly in Stravinsky’s later works, but it’s easy to forget just how present they are in the Rite, for all of its sound and fury.
But there is also something which, to me, sets the Rite apart from much Stravinsky’s music—I find it extraordinarily moving. I don’t mean this as a slight to those other pieces; I love and admire them, but in a more intellectual, reserved way. Faced with the Rite I am powerless to analyze. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that I’ve been listening to it for quite a long time; it can be difficult to gain an adult-like perspective on the things which defined my childhood and adolescence, almost as if I’m still listening to that music with 14-year-old ears.
I first heard the Rite listening to the radio in the car with my dad, driving home from school. He wasn’t quite sure what it was but he thought it might be the Rite of Spring. Over the radio it sounded like a wild but not at all disagreeable tangle of notes; the colors and the hugeness weren’t lost in translation, but I could tell that they were being hemmed in. I bought the Abaddo recording on my next trip to New York, at the Barnes & Noble across from Juilliard. It still sounded like a thicket, albeit one I grew familiar with little by little.
And after awhile, it began to take that powerful emotional hold. Its affect on me has only intensified over the years; the piece has the odd property of getting stronger with age and repeated exposure. It doesn’t matter if I’m listening through small, tinny speakers, as I was that first time, or to a great orchestra live in a concert hall, or watching a minuscule version of the ballet on my iPhone—I find the Rite of Spring hypnotic and completely immobilizing.