The Rite of Spring

From Academic Kids

The Rite of Spring is a ballet with music by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Its Russian title, Весна священная, literally means Spring the Sacred. The English title is based on the French title under which the work was premiered, Le Sacre du printemps, although sacre is more precisely translated as consecration. It has the subtitle "Pictures from Pagan Russia."


Composition and critical reception

After getting the idea of the piece in 1910 from imagery of pagan ritual encountered during the composition of The Firebird, Stravinsky began forming sketches and ideas for the piece, enlisting the help of archaelogist and folklorist Nikolai Roerich. Though he was sidetracked for a year he worked on Petrushka (which he intended to be a light burlesque as a relief from the orchestrally-intense work already in progress), The Rite of Spring was composed between 1912 and 1913 for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Roerich was an integral part of the creation of the work, drawing from scenes of historical rites for inspiration; Stravinsky referred to the work-in-progress as "our child". After going through revisions almost up until the very day of its first performance, it was premiered on May 23, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris and was conducted by Pierre Monteux. The same performers gave a production of the work in London later the same year. Its United States premiere was in 1924 in a concert (that is, non-staged) version.

At its premiere, there were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. This eventually degenerated into a near-riot, which has made it one of the most notorious premieres in music history. It has been suggested that the disruption was as much due to Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography and the overall scenario (which was about pagan sacrifice, rather than the usual genteel ballet themes) as it was to Stravinsky's frequently brutal and violent music. Another possibility for the disruption could have been the actions taken by a group in the audience, recruited and paid by Stravinsky's detractors, placed there to transform the premiere into a colossal failure. Stravinsky himself was so upset at its reception that he fled the theater in mid-scene. To add further evidence of the work's lack of favor, musicologist Andrey Rimsky-Korsakov, a close friend of Stravinsky's and son of the noted composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, published a scathing review. Further performances of the ballet, particularly Diaghilev's 1921 revival, were also disappointingly received; however, the orchestral suite, premiered in April 1914, was a smashing success in Paris and then internationally, as it remains to this day.

Stravinsky was continually revising the work for both musical and practical reasons, even after its premiere and well into the early 1920s. Stravinsky made a version of the score for piano four hands (that is, two people playing at one piano); as he composed the Rite, as with his other works, at the piano, it is natural that he worked on the piano version of the work concurrently with the full orchestral score. It was in this form that the piece was first published (in 1913, the full score not being published until 1921). Due to the disruption caused by World War I, there were few performances of the work in the years following its composition, which made this arrangement the main way in which people got to know the piece; this version is still performed quite frequently, as it does not require the massive forces of the full orchestral version.


The Rite of Spring is a series of episodes depicting the wild pagan nature of the Spring: "...the wise elders are seated in a circle and are observing the dance before death of the girl whom they are offering as a sacrifice to the god of Spring in order to gain his benevolence," says Stravisky, of the imagery that prompted the genesis of the work. Though the music is capable of standing alone, and was a great success in the concert-hall, in conception it is inextricably tied to the action on stage. The Rite is divided into two parts with the following scenes (there are many different translations of the original titles; the ones given are Stravinsky's preferred wording):

Part I: Adoration of the Earth

  • Introduction
  • The Augurs of Spring (Dances of the Young Girls)
  • Ritual of Abductions
  • Spring Rounds (Round Dance)
  • Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes
  • Procession of the Oldest and Wisest One (The Sage)
  • The Kiss of the Earth (Adoration of the Earth, or the Wise Elder)
  • The Dancing Out of the Earth

Part II: The Sacrifice

  • Introduction
  • Mystic Circle of the Young Girls
  • The Naming and Honoring of the Chosen One
  • Evocation of the Ancestors (Ancestral Spirits)
  • Ritual Action of the Ancestors
  • Sacrificial Dance (the Chosen One)

Though the melodies draw from folklike themes designed to evoke the feeling of songs passed down from ancient time, the only tune Stravinsky acknowledged to be directly drawn from previously-existing folk melody is the opening, first heard played by the solo bassoon. Several other themes, however, have been shown to have a striking similarity to folk tunes appearing in the Juskiewicz anthology of Lithuanian folk songs.

Musical characteristics

Stravinsky's music is harmonically adventurous, with an emphasis on dissonance used for its own sake. Rhythmically, it is similarly harsh, with a number of sections having constantly changing time signatures and unpredictable off-beat accents: Missing image
Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, "Sacrificial Dance"

According to George Perle the "intersecting of inherently non-symmetrical diatonic elements with inherently non-diatonic symmetrical elements seems...the defining principle of the musical language of Le Sacre and the source of the unparalleled tension and conflicted energy of the work."

Further, "the diatonicism of Le Sacre du printemps should not be understood in the restrictive sense of the major/minor system, but in terms of something more basic. Like the symmetrical partitionings of the twelve-tone scale in Le Sacre, its diatonicism"

"may also be explained in terms of interval cycles--more simply and coherently, in fact, than in terms of the traditional modes and scales. With the single exception of interval[-class] 5, every interval[-class] from 1 through 6 will partition the space of an octave into equal segments. A seven-note segment of the interval-5 cycle [C5], telescoped into the compass of an octave, divides the octave into unequal intervals--'whole-steps' and 'half-steps'."

Example: The main theme from the Introduction, preceded by the head motif.

The boundary of what Perle considers the principal theme from the Introduction, following the solo bassoon head motif in measures 1-3, is a symmetrical tritone divided by minor thirds, making an interval-3 cycle (C3). (p.19) Like Varese's Density 21.5, "it partitioned the interval of a tritone into two minor thirds and differentiated these by twice filling in the span of the upper third--first chromatically and then with a single passing note--and leaving the lower third open." The theme repeats "truncated" in 7-9, the head motif only in 13, and then fully, transposed down a half step, fifty three measures later, 66, at the end of the movement with "cb-bb-ab instead of the head motif's c-b-a." (p.81-82)

Like Density 21.5, it "implies the complete representation of each partition of the C3 interval cycle." C30 begins in the head motif's c-b-a and is completed by the main theme which immediately follows (see example above). However, "the otherwise atonal C3 cycle is initiated by a minor third that is plainly diatonic and tonal," (p.83) and thus The Rite of Spring has something in comm with No. 33 of Bartok's 44 Violin Duets, "Song of the Harvest", which, "juxtaposes tonal and atonal interpretations of the same perfect-4th tetrachord." (p.86)

The piece is scored for an unusually large orchestra: piccolo, three flutes and alto, four oboes and English horn, three clarinets plus D/Eb and bass, four bassoons and contrabassoon, eight French horns (two doubling on Wagner tubas), four trumpets, one doubling on bass, and piccolo trumpet, three trombones, two tubas and large string and percussion sections including such exotic instruments as the guiro and crotales. Stravinsky generates a wide variety of timbres from this ensemble, beginning the ballet with a very quiet and high bassoon solo, and ending with a frenzied dance played by the whole orchestra.

As film score

However, most people will have met the Rite of Spring through Walt Disney's Fantasia, a 1941 animated movie showing imaginative illustrations to classical music. In 1961, Stravinsky wrote that he received $1,200 (his share of a total $5,000) for the use of his music in the film, explaining that the music was not copyrighted for use in the USA and would be used regardless of whether he granted permission, but that Disney wished to show the film in other countries. Stravinsky described the performance as "execrable" and thought the segment as a whole "involved a dangerous misunderstanding."

The Rite of Spring is the fourth piece to be played, illustrated by a "a pageant, as the story of the growth of life on Earth" according to the narrator. The sequence shows the beginning of simple life forms, evolution up to the dinosaurs, and their eventual destruction. The movie was not considered successful at the time, but has since been hailed as an ambitious and talented use of animation for 'serious' art.

Many subsequent film composers have been influenced by The Rite of Spring and sometimes make indirect references to it; for example, a permutation of the introduction to Part II can be detected in John Williams's score to the original Star Wars.

See also


  • Peter Hill, Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0521622212.
  • Pieter C. van den Toorn, Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. full text (
  • George Perle (1990). The Listening Composer. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. ISBN 0520069919.
    • George Perle (). "Berg's Master Array of the Interval Cycles", p. 10.
  • Boris Mikhailovich Yarustovsky, foreword to an early Russian edition

External links


he:פולחן האביב ko:봄의 제전 ja:春の祭典 fi:Kevtuhri nl:Le Sacre du Printemps


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