On May 29, 1913 a riot-inducing work of art, Rite of Spring, was performed at a Paris theater. One hundred years to the day later, the Spoleto Festival will pay homage to Igor Stravinky’s modern musical masterpiece with music spanning most of that century.
The Music in Time concert includes several works by Stravinsky, his contemporaries Béla Bartók, Claude Debussy, Anton Webern, and later composers Edgar Varèse, Steve Reich, and Iannis Xenakis.
“There are so many strains of music connected to Rite,” says Spoleto’s Resident Conductor John Kennedy, and the concert taps into many of them.
“For me, it’s not just about the musical influence of Rite, but as a testament for the avant-garde. As well as being an amazing piece of music, there’s something iconic and metaphoric about it and the spirit it embodies.”
Stravinsky’s music was the score for the Rite of Spring ballet by the Ballet Russe, which depicted a prehistoric ritual in which a young woman dances herself to death as a sacrifice to the gods of spring. The music was groundbreaking for its experiments in constantly shifting, pounding rhythms, repeating melody, dissonant passages, and Russian folk music references.
The uproar wasn’t about the music alone. The anti-balletic choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky provoked more anger than the music, which reportedly could barely be heard above the din, although the “riot” consisted mostly of some yelling and pushing and the ejection of a few dozen audience members. The original ballet was performed only eight times and the original choreography lost until reconstructed in the late 1980s, although several other versions with new choreography were created over the years.
By contrast, Stravinsky’s music rapidly became widely admired and performed. The first concert performance of Rite of Spring was given just eight months after the ballet’s premiere, and the music developed a life entirely separate from the ballet.
The Music in Time concert includes several pieces that show Stravinsky was hardly alone in breaking musical boundaries in the first decade of the 20th century. “Some of these are part of the milieu,” Kennedy says. “These are similar although not on the epic scale of Rite of Spring.”
The adventuresome spirit of the time can be heard in Claude Debussy’s Prelude and Syrinx, which predate Rite. Stravinisky had long admired the older composer and the feeling became mutual when Debussy heard Stravinsky’s The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911) for the Ballet Russe. Like Stravinsky, Debussy had collaborated with the Ballets Russe and Nijinsky for controversial works The Afternoon of a Faun and Jeux.
The year before the premiere of Rite, Debussy and Stravinsky sat down and played portions of it in a two-piano arrangement after which Debussy found himself “haunted as by a beautiful nightmare.” Anton Webern was already driving music in new ways by the first decade of the 20th century, pushing tonality, writing for spare textures, compressing the highest intensity of expression into the greatest brevity, and using extended instrumental techniques. His Six Bagatelles from 1913 range in length from 20 seconds to just over a minute and present a series of passing moods and miniature dramas.
Like Stravinsky, Béla Bartók was using dance rhythms and folk tunes early on, which can be heard clearly in “Allegro Barbaro” (1911). With its forceful rhythmic figures, Bartók’s piece is like a slightly older cousin to Rite. After the work was dismissed by one critic as “barbarian,” Bartók proudly added that description to the title.
Then there is Stravinsky himself — Rite wasn’t the only adventuresome music occupying him in 1913. His Three Japanese Lyrics was inspired by Japanese poems and paintings. “The graphic solution of problems of perspective and space shown by their art incited me to find something analogous in music,” he said of the piece. With his Three Pieces for String Quartet from 1914, Stravinsky narrowed his musical palette to just four instruments and the duration to less than a single movement in a traditional quartet — almost the opposite of his work with the ballet.
Written a decade after Rite, Edgard Varèse’s Octandre uses jumpy rhythmic motifs that gather from solo passages into great, shocking waves of sound. The quasi-mathematical title refers both to its eight-player ensemble (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, and double bass) and the literal meaning, a flower with eight stamens. Unlike most Varese music, this has no percussion instruments.
The concert jumps ahead 50 years for Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, a work that is all percussion all the time. The musicians each play a pair of claves (short, tuned wooden rods), and with these simple tools create a complex rhythmic discourse in which a single rhythmic figure is offset and overlapped in constant evolution.
Louis Andriessen’s Workers’ Union (1975) challenged the minimalist composers’ trance-like states with an edginess, angularity, and aggression influenced both by Stravinsky and jazz. His harmonic writing is presented in large blocks of sound “for any loud sounding group of instruments.”
The most recent work, Okho (1989) by Iannis Xenakis uses African drums to create a kind of tribal modernism. The eight-section work has extremely limited rhythmic material recombined in solos, duos, and trios.
Although Rite has cast a long shadow, the way it impacts composers has changed considerably over the past century. “The influence in more recent years has been much more organic,” Kennedy says. “It’s more about musical freedom and imagination … What was cited as musically shocking is no longer the case, but when people hear it again, they discover new things and are amazed by it.”