Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – Work No. 82 in our collection

Igor Stravinsky (17.06.1882 – 06.04.1971) was a Russian-born (and later, a naturalized French and American) composer, pianist, and conductor. He is widely considered one of the most important and influential composers of the twentieth century. Stravinsky’s compositional career was notable for its stylistic diversity. He first achieved international fame with three ballets commissioned by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and first performed in Paris by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913). His “Russian phase” was followed in the 1920s by a period in which he turned to neoclassical music. The works from this period tended to make use of traditional musical forms (e.g. concerto grosso, fugue and symphony). They often paid tribute to the music of earlier masters, such as J.S. Bach and Tchaikovsky.

The Rite of Spring calls for the largest orchestra Stravinsky ever employed¹. In this work the  rhythmic structure of music became much more fluid and in a certain way spontaneous. The composer Philip Glass has remarked upon Stravinsky’s “primitive, offbeat rhythmic drive.” This work, more than any other, was responsible for Stravinsky’s enduring reputation as a musical revolutionary who who pushed the boundaries of musical design and transformed the way in which subsequent composers thought about rhythmic structure.

The scenario of Le Sacre du Printemps, or The Rite of Spring to give it its suitably chilling English title, is that of a pagan ritual in which a sacrificial virgin dances herself to death. Its premiere, at the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées on May 29, 1913, conducted by Pierre Monteux, caused a scandal. For many in the audience there must have been a feeling of complete shock. The music was such a violent wrench from every musical tradition that had gone before, Nijinsky’s choreography was highly exotic and Roerich’s settings must have seemed totally bizarre. However, only a year later, a concert performance was given in the Casino de Paris, again conducted by Pierre Monteux and on this occasion Stravinsky was carried from the hall shoulder-high in triumph!

I would argue that there is still no more influential piece of music written in the twentieth century. Composers ranging from Elliott Carter to Pierre Boulez and from from Steve Reich to Thomas Adès most likely would not have composed the music they have done without the inspiration of The Rite of Spring.

The score of The Right of Spring is so full of action that it is almost impossible for any one performance and/or recording to capture everything perfectly. This work, more than almost any other, repays familiarity with a number of different performances. Readers with a desire to really get to grips with this work might wish to sample Decca’s 100th Anniversary Collector’s Edition that is available to stream on Qobuz and contains forty different performances in a 20 CD set!

Sir Simon Rattle has long been a champion of the music of Igor Stravinsky and both his performances with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra² and the Berliner Philharmoniker are fine performances that emphasise the beauty in these works, perhaps at the expense of raw power. In marked contrast Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra max out on raw primitivism but lose out on the detail. There is an outstandingly well recorded version on Channel Classics from Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. This is a razor-sharp, revealing version that sounds suitably ‘fresh, pagan and scary’. Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra deliver accounts of all three ballets, commissioned by the Diaghilev, on two bargain priced CDs on Deutsche Grammophon and these have given me much pleasure over the years. There is a 1956 recording of Pierre Monteux conducting the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra and it goes without saying this performance, directed by the man who first conducted the piece, is magnificent. Monteux manages to infuse the score with drama without ever imposing himself on the music or it appearing rushed.

There are also a number of recordings of the composer conducting this piece. There is a recording made in the Liederkranz Hall in New York on 4 April 1940 where Stokowski conducted the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. This has been expertly restored by Mark Obert-Thorn and is available with the other two ballets (recorded in 1940 and 1946) on the Naxos label. However our top recommendation goes to Stravinsky’s blistering 1960 account with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, available on the Sony label; a recording that can still produce a sense of shock and comes with good quality sound.

For those wishing to see the ballet performed we would recommend Valery Gergiev with the Mariinsky Orchestra & Ballet on the Bel Air Classiques label.

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¹ The orchestra is composed of piccolo, 3 flutes (3rd doubles 2nd piccolo), alto flute, 4 oboes (4th doubles 2nd cor anglais), cor anglais, piccolo clarinet in D/E♭, 3 clarinets (3rd doubles 2nd bass clarinet), bass clarinet, piccolo clarinet, 4 bassoons (4th doubles 2nd contrabassoon), contrabassoon, 8 horns (7th and 8th double tenor Wagner tubas), piccolo trumpet in D, 4 trumpets in C (4th doubles bass trumpet in E-flat), 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass), 2 tubas. Percussion includes 5 timpani (2 players), bass drum, tamtam, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, antique cymbals, guiro, and strings. (Piano, celesta, and harp are not included.)

² This is available on Warner Classics as part of a bargain-priced two CD set containing all three of Stravinsky’s ballets.