Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at 100
2013 is the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and 2013 will see more than 270 performances of this iconic work of the early 20th century.
Donald Rosenberg, long-time music critic and reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, has written a fascinating article about the Rite in this month’s Symphony magazine. He begins with a description of the pandemonium that occurred at the premiere. To my surprise, he states that most of the commotion was because of Vaslav Nijinksy’s choreography, not the music. In fact, the noise from the audience obliterated the music for most attendees and left poor Nijinsky, “standing on a chair backstage, shouting counts to the dancers.”
Don showcases The Rite of Spring at 100 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which has a season-long celebration of conferences and 11 commissioned instrumental and dance works based on the Rite.
He also discusses the complexity of the piece as perceived over the years. My favorite quote is from Stanislav Skrowaczewski, who recorded the piece with Minnesota in 1977:
As a boy, I wasn’t allowed in the mountains of Poland. The local place was inhabited by this sort of tribe. They had in the summer in the full moon absolutely incredible rites at night that I saw from far away. I don’t think they were drinking. But because of the rites, they were in another state of mind. It was dangerous, because they could kill you in this state of mind. They were in a sort of ecstasy that we sometimes get through music. The beginning of the second part always gives me a shiver.
The most interesting part of Don’s article, for me as an symphony musician, are his interviews with five principal bassoonists with five major American orchestras, discussing the opening bassoon solo.
Two comments to begin with:
- Camille Saint-Saëns is credited with saying, “If that is a bassoon, then I am a baboon!” but apparently he wasn’t at the premiere.
- Don asserts that the opening bassoon theme is taken from a Lithuanian folk song — as one married to a Lithuanian steeped in his tradition, this was a shock to both of us!
Don’s interviews of five premiere bassoonists, discussing this legendary and oh-so-difficult solo, is really fun. I urge you to take a look at the article.
- Loren Glickman, a NY free-lancer who played on Stravinksy’s recording back in 1960, talks about the composer insisting that he play the solo completely straight, and how later bassoonists found his rendition boring.
- Judith LeClaire of the NY Philharmonic talks about how it must set up a mood — “etherial and mystical.”
- David McGill of the Chicago Symphony talks about the tradition of coming in from nothing, and states (to our amusement), “You’re not a Lithuanian folk singer or someone actually sitting in a forest playing a bamboo flute in the distance.” He goes on to say that one must evoke a primitive quality.
- Stephen Paulson of the San Francisco Symphony is concerned about the perfect vibrato of some of his colleagues playing this solo; he tries to “make a really beautiful thing but do more sparing things with the vibrato, maybe like a Baroque or jazz player.”
- Carl Nitchie of the Atlanta Symphony jokes that the opening solo has a bass drum accompaniment — his own heart beat!
Thanks to Don for a wonderful tribute to Stravinsky’s greatest work!
Polyphonic recently received a most interesting submission from composer Stephen Malinowski, who has created a graphical interpretation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It’s hard to describe in words but fascinating to watch — a graphical interpretation in real time of the entire score, using various geometric forms over time — just go look at it! My orchestra (Hartford Symphony) is one of the 270 planning to perform the Rite this year (in early June), and I certainly intend to watch composer Malinowski’s video while watching my part, before my first rehearsal. I imagine, despite the many times I’ve played this work, it will give me an insight into a new dimension of understanding of a beloved piece.
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