Opera + Classical Music Features

Why I Love… The Rite Of Spring

Our series on personal music passions takes on Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, a work which happens to you, says Benjamin Poore

Everybody knows the story of Le Sacre du printemps. It even got Hollywood treatment in 2009’s Coco Chanel biopic. Nijinsky shouting the beats from the wings; the police called to break up an audience tussling over the flat-footed ballerinas; Diaghilev’s delight in his succès de scandale. Le Sacre sits beside Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Schoenberg’s Erwartung as artistic flashpoints for a new musical century. Whilst it was Nijinsky’s revolutionary choreography that was the principal cause of the trouble at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1913, Igor Stravinsky’s music has an atavistic force that has thrilled me since I first heard it as a teenager doing my music A level.

The story of the ballet and its tumultuous premiere was relayed with gory glee by our music teacher, but it didn’t really fascinate me that much at the time. It was the music’s insatiable freshness that caught my ear ,and its dizzyingly complicated score my eye, stuffed with eccentric instruments and weird time signatures.

For modern audiences there are all kinds of question marks over the ballet’s scenario – anthropologist Nicholas Roerich’s mystical primitivism might seem naff, perhaps even rather suspect, these days – though  daring stagings by Pina Bausch and Mary Wigman offer unflinching examinations of the work’s frightening gender politics: the former filled Alex Ross with “motionless fright”. And the score has been a wellspring for hugely inventive onstage realisations on stage: the most striking, for me, being Florence Peake’s astounding sculptural imagination of the ballet on six tonnes of clay, burying us in the piece’s geological heart.

What is it that makes Le Sacre so special? To say a work of art is timeless is nonsense. But part of Le Sacre’s power is found in its asynchronous or untimely quality. To this effect Debussy quipped that it is “primitive music with all the modern conveniences”.

It sounds partly as if Stravinsky has reached into the distant past, finding music before music. The weird woodwind timbres of the opening – stretched bassoon, fluttering piccolo, rasping E-flat clarinet (with gurgling bass relative) – show these instruments discovering themselves for the first time, liberated from the conventions of orchestration textbooks. Paradoxically Stravinsky makes deepest prehistory sound like the artistic future; the piece is a startling realisation of the modernist injunction to ‘Make it new!’

Not for nothing then would Leonard Bernstein hear ‘prehistoric jazz’ in Le Sacre. But its machine repetition and metallic clattering suggests sage-like foresight too, prophesying the coming century’s barbarism. It unleashes energies that emblematise modernity’s creative and destructive potential, and means the piece far exceeds the then trendy primitivism of its conception, lapped up hitherto by its urbane Parisian audiences across the arts.

“You don’t listen to Le Sacre – it happens to you”

Stravinsky’s magic is to make it sound as if the work invents music for the first time. It is for this reason that it can often sound newer than the many works it has inspired. One of the joys of repeated returns to Le Sacre is that it feels like a codex for everything that follows, from Messiaen to Reich to Birtwistle; hearing it is like sequencing the genome of 20th-century music. Its harmonies are full of modal wobbling and jazzy superimposition, with occasional, distant snatches of diatonic familiarity.

Timbre and colour become organising principles in themselves: the two timpani players the work demands sound as if they are fulfilling their destinies in ‘Jeux des cités rivales’; in the ‘Cortège du Sage’ the percussionists threaten an orchestral insurrection; the eight horns swap Romantic nobility for frat boy whooping in the dance of the adolescents.

The piece has a kind of internal flex and tensile strength that means, unlike its protagonist, it persists. Perhaps this is because its chaos is exquisitely controlled. Pierre Boulez would describe The Rite’s “distorted symmetry”: rhythmic units and melodic chunks are distended, shrunk, cut and pasted, which makes us experience the work as both unyieldingly atavistic and breathtakingly spontaneous. One of its central paradoxes of this musical collage is that repetition becomes a form of development, fragmenting and coalescing as the musical whole accretes. No wonder it exhausts its own momentum at the end of Part Two, the killing blows administered by apocalyptic bass drum, timpani, and tuba. 

You don’t listen to Le Sacre – it happens to you, but conductors and orchestras have caught the work’s iridescence in different ways. In a sense Le sacre has been a victim of its own success: any orchestra worth its chops can and will trot it out as a virtuous showpiece, like Strauss’ Don Juan.

So it can be hard for modern versions to fire up the work’s electric frisson. Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky certainly come close, punching holes in the neighbours’ wall with climactic timpani and bass drum. Bernstein’s recording with the NY Philharmonic apparently made Stravinsky start out of chair in surprise. Lenny finds brash, big-band swagger and a Latin American rhythm section (see the ‘Cortege du Sage’); it’s a wholly urban Rite, danced by the Jets and Sharks. Perhaps even more thrilling is seeing him work on the piece in rehearsal with a German youth orchestra. Pierre Boulez’s account with the Cleveland orchestra is rightly lauded: forensic clarity, focus, and balance, with uncanny rhythmic exactitude; Boulez offers a great essay in the work’s modernity.

Esa Pekka-Salonen and the LA Philharmonic brings his equally assiduous composer’s brain to their recent recording, if adding a touch of Hollywood glossiness (reminding us of the work’s appearance in Fantasia, naturally). Boulez’ star pupil François-Xavier Roth channels the same perspicacity, though marches off in a quite different direction with his historically-informed account from period ensemble Les Siècles. Sinuous woodwinds and brighter brass create something surprisingly diaphanous, with odours of Ravel, and point the way forward to Stravinsky’s more poised neoclassicism. 

For me the greatest danger – and therefore the height of excitement – comes in the early recordings of Pierre Monteux (1951) and Ernest Ansermet (1957), who both worked extensively with Stravinsky. Often the wheels sound like they are about to come off, with both conductor and musicians struggling to bring something truly new and outrageous into being. It’s febrile, intense, even slightly alarmed: the sound of modern music cracking open. 

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Why I Love… The Rite Of Spring