Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) was born in Oranienbaum, Russia, and grew up in St. Petersburg. He studied piano, music theory, and composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. His first works bear the stamp of his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, especially the Symphony in E Flat (1907). Debussy and impressionism influenced his writing in Scherzo fantastique (1907–8) and Fireworks (1908). These works caught the attention of ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who commissioned The Firebird (1909–10) for his Ballets Russes in Paris. The vivid colors and exotic harmonies of The Firebird made Stravinsky an overnight sensation, laying the foundation for numerous further collaborations with Diaghilev, including the two groundbreaking ballet scores Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1912).

Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)

At the time of The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky was taken with primitivism and the ancient Scyths. (The ballet’s original title was Scenes of Pagan Russia.) The idea stemmed from a dream of “a solemn pagan rite: wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” Stravinsky wanted the work “to express the bright reawakening of nature, which is restored to new life—a full, spontaneous reawakening...of universal [maternal] conception.”

Maurice Ravel predicted that the Rite’s debut would be the most important since Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. It was. It was also the most notorious. The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris was packed on May 29, 1913, the eve of the Great War. The orchestra was mostly from Concerts Colonne; its conductor was Pierre Monteux. Nicholas Roerich, an expert on the Scyths, designed the costumes. Vaclav Nijinsky was the choreographer, to the dismay of Stravinsky though he relented in later years. The Rite was the second of four ballets after Chopin’s Les sylphides and before Carl Maria von Weber’s Le spectre de la rose and Alexander Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances—all conservative works.

Tensions were high, some for nationalistic reasons, political and artistic. Mahler had written his last symphony five years earlier. Elgar’s conservative Second was three years old. Debussy’s Jeux premiered a year earlier, and Bartók was still under his influence. Strauss had retreated from his audacious Salome and Elektra with Der Rosenkavalier. Most of Berg’s and Schoenberg’s major atonal works were yet to come. Nothing had prepared the audience forThe Rite of Spring.

The audience contained two important factions: pro- (possibly sent by Diaghilev) and anti-Rite. The latter began cat-calling during the Introduction and reached a crescendo when the curtain lifted to reveal dancers the composer described as “knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas.” The racket made it hard for the dancers to hear the music and Nijinsky’s efforts to compensate by shouting meters from backstage. Accounts differ, including stories of the factions attacking each other and the orchestra, fistfights, cane-striking, the police arriving (or not). Eventually, things calmed down, the performance continued, and some critics recognized the work as a masterpiece. Stravinsky was shaken by the chaos.

The production was staged again in Paris and in London. The Rite’s first performance as a concert work was in St. Petersburg under Serge Koussevitzky in 1914, and Monteux conducted it in Paris that same year. Today, it is performed mainly in the concert hall. A 1987 production pieced together Nijinsky’s choreography, which was thought to have been lost.

The Rite of Spring is a suite of dances for girls (lyrical in style, featuring higher pitched instruments), boys (explosive and aggressive, with lower instruments), and elders (mysterious). It synthesizes French technique with Russian folk music. The latter usually appears in short fragments, sometimes buried in the middle of the texture, sometimes with notes out of order, sometimes disguised by harmony and rhythm. Two tunes are often played together in different keys, creating harmonic tension, not just in chords, but in sustained passages.

The huge orchestration requires a large woodwind section, eight horns including two tenor Wagner tubas, five trumpets, three trombones, two tubas, and a large battery of percussion. It employs solo instruments within their character of expression (piercing trumpets, exotic clarinets, seductive flutes) and beyond (playing in register extremes, percussive strings). The scoring favors instruments that can articulate sharply and clearly, and often combines them in choirs to achieve different sonorities.

The Rite made its greatest breakthrough in rhythm. Composers had been writing mainly in two-, three-, and four-beat measures with strong-beat patterns that often followed the harmony and were easy to follow. Debussy had blurred the bar line somewhat, but with The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky broke it, freeing rhythm by redefining it with irregular beat patterns, “misplaced” accents, and mixed meters. He employed ostinato and repetition and tended to avoid dotted or skipping figures that would take away from the primitivism. He also made innovative use of silence to store up then release energy.

The Rite of Spring is arguably the most influential composition of the twentieth century. Western music was never the same after its premiere, and it is hard to imagine Shostakovich, Britten, Copland, or virtually any twentieth or twenty-first century composer without it.

Following is a brief outline of audible clues to its structure. 

Part I: Adoration of the Earth  


Description of morning awakening. Slow bassoon solo with busy woodwinds.

Augurs of Spring

Girls playing games. Vigorous ostinatos in strings; many flourishes; steady four-note rhythm.

Ritual of Abduction

Boys kidnap a girl, the “Chosen One.” Sudden fast triplets in strings, then winds; horn call in the middle; ends with a sudden pause.

Spring Rounds

Slow. Girls and boys. Clarinet chant under trilling flutes; slow treading strings; chanting melody; pause, furious dance breaks out, another quiet tranquil dance in woodwinds.

Ritual of the Rival Tribes

Fast burst in low brass; struggle between rival groups, e.g., chant-like melody vs. aggressive motifs. Note melody in high tubas.

Procession of the Sage

Tuba howl continues, with wailing horns added; tremendous chaos. Pause.

Kiss of the Earth

Sage blesses the Earth. Short passage in bassoons ending with an eerie string chord.

Dance of the Earth

All living things burst forth. Huge crescendo. Violent outburst; furious rush to end.

Part II: The Sacrifice  


More games; mood tenser than in Part I Introduction. Slow, quiet chant melody that appears again in horns near end; pizzicato in low strings ends section.

Mystic Circles of Young Girls

Girls encircle or snake around the Chosen One. Chant in six viola parts; quiet with fragments of folk melodies; tension builds to ending of eleven whacks in timpani, bass drum, and strings.

Glorification of Chosen One

Fast, violent, very complex rhythmic passage; many off-beat rhythms.

Evocation of Ancestors

Homage to Elders preparing for the ritual. Low note in basses, winds-brass fanfare/chorales.

Ritual Action of Ancestors

Elders take charge of Chosen One. English horn and alto flute solos, rolling flute lines; big brass climax. Horns scream out earlier chant theme. Mysterious melodies from opening of movement return in flute and clarinet. Bass clarinet tumbles into....

Sacrificial Dance

Girl dances to exhaustion and death. This dance is so difficult rhythmically that Stravinsky could not immediately figure out how to write it down. Outbursts and chants throughout the orchestra, primeval glissandos in trombones. A dance of staggering exhaustion before a final collapse.

Stravinsky never wrote such a revolutionary piece again. The closest he came was Les Noces, a work that appeared in 1923 though begun in 1914. For the most part, he retreated into neoclassicism and works based on older models. When he later turned to atonality, it was long after Schoenberg had broken that ground. Perhaps he no longer needed to be revolutionary, though some scholars believe he retreated because of the hostile reception of the Rite’s premiere.

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is the Operations/Personnel Manager). He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener’s Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. His latest fiction collection, The Audition and Other Stories, includes a novella about a trombonist preparing for and taking a major orchestra audition (English Hill Press, 2013).

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