100 years on: Igor Stravinsky on The Rite of Spring

It is scarcely believable that The Rite of Spring, and before it The Firebird andPetrushka, were written by a composer still in his twenties, and that this was only slightly more than a decade after the death of Johannes Brahms. The unanticipated creation of Petrushka (1911), written in seven months, intervened between the conception and the composition of The Rite, which Igor Stravinsky had envisioned while completing Firebird in 1910. The theophanic experience likely dates from December 1909, when Alexandre Benois and Nikolai Roerich persuaded the composer of the merit of Mikalojus Ciurlionis’s paintings. At their urging Stravinsky visited the St Petersburg exhibition of the Lithuanian artist’s temperas. Roerich, himself a painter, ethnographer and authority on pre-Christian rituals of Slavic Russian tribes, had compiled a book on Ciurlionis. Mesmerized by the paintings, Stravinsky purchased one, the “Sonata of the Pyramids” (1908). 

Bernard Berenson classified Ciurlionis simply as an abstractionist, which is of no help in understanding his use of strange forms, geometric conglomerations, quasirealistic trees, and, primarily, the sense of skyward movement. In July 1961 Stravinsky wrote to a Lithuanian art critic, emphasizing the difficulty in conveying the originality of the art: “It is not easy to describe a picture of this flight of growing-upwards extending rows of pyramids toward the horizon, the subject of this powerful work”. Perhaps in the upward thrusting Stravinsky felt an affinity with his musical germinations at the time. But, then, only a few years before his marriage in 1906 he was still contemplating whether to become a painter or a composer. His early landscapes are technically accomplished in many aspects and distinguished by the richness of his palette. Certainly Ciurlionis’s work influenced the Rite, and surely it is not mere chance that the first bars of the ballet are almost a note-for-note transcription of a popular Lithuanian folk song.

From the sustained opening note (The Sun), the whole of the Introduction to the Rite could be interpreted as musical symbolism for the reawakening of life. Other instruments join in, singly or in small groups, all suggesting, without imitating, the bursting of buds and the beginning of plant life; Homo sapiens does not appear until the second piece, the “Augurs of Spring”. Stravinsky has told the world that the most joyous event of every year was the thunderous cracking of the ice in the Neva River, and the Rite remains the mightiest tribute in music to the return of spring. No composer before him had portrayed an ancient ritual, starting with the Sun God and ending with human sacrifice, a chosen virgin dancing herself to death.

Stravinsky selected Roerich as his collaborator because he was the only painter with extensive knowledge of pagan Russia as well. At the premiere of the Rite, Roerich was harshly denigrated by Jean Cocteau as “a mediocre artist whose decor weakens the innovative nature of the ballet”. Other critics derided Roerich’s scenery as lacking the dissonances characteristic of the music: “The clouds drift like slow waves, and the line of the hills gently slope. Roerich’s stylized costumes show no sign of the brutal quality suggested by the music”. Stravinsky remained loyal to Roerich nevertheless, giving equal recognition to him in the same bold font on the first page of the four-hand score published in 1921.

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