Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Thirteen Ways of Looking at "The Rite of Spring" (on the eve of its 100th birthday)

(With apologies to Wallace Stevens, Igor Stravinsky, and readers who may wonder what's the point of apologizing to dead people)  


1. The original ballet version of "The Rite of Spring" takes place in a tropical jungle.
My initial impression of the ballet's scenario was hard to shake, because the first recording of it I knew as a teenager had a reproduction of Henri Rousseau's "The Snake Charmer" on the cover, with a dark-skinned flute player beguiling serpents in a chlorophyll-intensive setting. Remember how we used to listen to LPs staring at the cover art? No wonder that's how I pictured the "Rite" milieu as I listened to the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Monteux, on RCA Victor.


2. Maestro accepts the benefits of fame, but never the vehicle.
 Monteux, who conducted the premiere, suggested to the composer that he arrange a concert version. Stravinsky readily agreed, according to the conductor, thus putting the work in the symphonic repertoire and leading to Monteux's feeling constrained to perform it more than he wanted to. But it made his reputation, as impresario Serge Diaghilev predicted it would.  He never really liked the "Rite," telling an audience at the Eastman School of Music in the 1950s: "I detested it. I still detest it."


3. The ballet involves peekaboo costumes with a Hollywood touch.
Another early recording I own could have misled many because of its cover art. The jacket photo of  Ernest Ansermet's recording with L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande shows a burly almost bare-chested fellow (he's wearing a Tarzan-style leopard-skin garment with dangling chains) sporting a forked beard holding aloft a bare-breasted maiden as if she is the Chosen One being carried to her sacrifice. His armpits are shaved, and he looks ready to toss her into a pit. The scenario's finale makes her selection an honor, and she dances herself to death.


4. Speaking of cinema, the best thing about "Igor Stravinsky & Coco Chanel" (2009) is the movie's opening re-creation of that famous "Rite of Spring" riot.  
It captures the shock of a high-society audience on May 29, 1913, encountering a piece that overturned choreographic and musical convention in one fell swoop — "a world in which a 'civilized' aesthetic often exhausted itself in dying affabilities," as Pierre Boulez once put it. Performances in the starring roles are excellent and the film looks good throughout, but nothing matches the splendid chaos of the first 10-15 minutes.



5. "The Rite of Spring" opens with a high-register bassoon solo on which everything depends. Bassoonists have learned to make this solo sound both easy and authoritative, which is good. Stravinsky had a knack for creating openings that function as distinctive calls to attention. Go have a listen to the start of "Symphonies of Wind Instruments,"  "Symphony of Psalms" and "Symphony in C" (each of which uses the word "symphony" to mean a different thing, by the way). Even when he sets out a simple introduction, as in "The Soldier's Tale," you sense something interesting is going to unfold. Minor works, too, like the "Tango," seem to take you right into a special world.


6. Stravinsky eventually embraces a system he had long considered alien because he likes the attitude displayed by one example.
In 1951, his influential secretary, Robert Craft, played for him  a tape of the premiere of Boulez's "Polyphonie X." The next year he composed his first piece ("Cantata") using the technique developed by his rival for top position in 20th-century music, Arnold Schoenberg, of whom Boulez was an advanced (and sometimes critical) adherent. Craft wrote that it was the "nose-thumbing force of the work that impressed the composer of The Rite of Spring, who may have been reminded of his own 1913 premiere, for Polyphonie X was at times all but drowned out by the laughter, shouts, hoots, and whistling."


7. "The Rite of Spring" puts to rest the notion that important modern music needs a long time to win over the public.
By 1914, concert performances of the score went over well in Moscow and London. World War I knocked high culture into a cocked hat, of course, but by the 1920s, the "Rite" had a permanent place in the repertory, despite its technical demands and huge orchestra, which it has never lost.

Boulez felt the need to deny the sentiment expressed in a New York panel discussion he convened in 1970 that good new art takes 50 years to be properly appreciated. He put forward two examples, according to his biographer, Joan Peyser: "The Rite of Spring" and Schoenberg's "Erwartung," one immediately popular, the other not. The moderator of the discussion ignored Boulez's comment, repeating fondly the modernist bromide that real quality in serious new art has to struggle a long time for recognition.



8. The public life of "The Rite of Spring," as of tomorrow, runs precisely a century, from 1913 to 2013.
Wallace Stevens wrote "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and later denied the musical idea of variations was useful in understanding it. He was not being defensive; the poem is too disjunct to support the analogy. Why 13 ways? Possibly to ward off superstitious resistance to the poem; blackbirds and the number 13 both betoken bad luck in Eurocentric cultures. Similarly these, my 13 ways of looking at the "Rite," are disjunct and sometimes contradict each other.

Stravinsky's perpetual rival Schoenberg had an acute fear of the number 13. Yet his birth and death dates both include that number.  He respelled the name of the biblical leader Aaron as "Aron" so there would not be 13 letters in the title of his opera "Moses und Aron." The only other famous "Aron" in 20th-century musical history is the purported middle name of Elvis Presley. This was Elvis' frequent spelling of the name that appears on his birth certificate as "Aaron." An odd parallel, isn't it? Two seminal musical artists finding something disturbing about the name "Aaron." Either way, if Presley's name is given in conventional legal form with the middle initial, guess how many letters that totals.


9. "The Rite of Spring" is without rights as a piece of music, and the composer should perhaps be strung up.
 The Boston Herald published some indignant doggerel in 1924 that questioned Stravinsky's right to compose such a work "and then to call it Rite of Spring, / The season when on joyous wing / The birds melodious carols sing / And harmony's in everything."


10.  There is nothing sweet and soft about the onset of the season in the true setting of "The Rite of Spring."
This is not the spring associated, authentically or not, with names attached to certain works by Vivaldi, Schumann and Beethoven. The season whose return is celebrated in the "Rite" is "the violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking," the composer told Robert Craft.


11. Many listeners (Stevens' "bawds of euphony," perhaps?) have grumbled about the lack of melody in "The Rite of Spring," but it contains at least nine traditional Russian melodies.
A musicologist specializing in Russian music, Richard Taruskin, identified every one of them in a 1994 scholarly gathering at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and drove the point home by writing: "Far from the purely intuitive abstract music Stravinsky later claimed here to have written, there had never been a music more completely Russian in manner or attitude."



12. If you can imagine the joy greeting spring's return after the harsh Russian winter,  you'll hear it throughout "The Rite of Spring."
"My object was to present a number of scenes of earthly joy and celestial triumph as understood by the Slavs,"  wrote Nicolas Roerich, an authority on the ancient Slavs and collaborator with Stravinsky on the ballet scenario, in a letter to Diaghilev. Stravinsky quickly tired of association with  Roerich's semimystical assertions, but he was trying to position himself in the modernist mainstream, and suggestions that his revolutionary score was steeped in "the Georgics of prehistory" (Jean Cocteau's phrase) impeded his progress. Still, 100 years after it was new music both acclaimed and assailed for its violence, we can rightly hear it in an exalted frame of mind.

13. Forces of darkness  and light will forever coexist in "The Rite of Spring."
As Stevens' stanza VIII says: "I know noble accents / And lucid, inescapable rhythms; / But I know, too, / That the blackbird is involved / In what I know."