Reading Your Rites

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Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is 100 years old today and people are making a bit of a palaver about it. This is nice. We like it when people make a palaver about music-y stuff, and especially that particular piece, with which I have had a mild obsession since listening to little else while travelling round Italy at the age of eighteen. Piero della Francesca and The Rite of Spring – not natural sofa-mates, but forever linked in my mind because of that trip, on which I also discovered that the whole thing with Mussolini and on-time trains is not an exaggeration.

Anyway, The Rite of Spring. Here is someone much more knowledgeable than me to tell you all about it.

That, of course, is a composer’s view. But what of the conductor’s? Well, this is what Stravinsky had to say:

“Its reputed difficulties…actually no more than the simple alternation of twos and threes, proved to be a conductors’ myth. Spring is strenuous but not difficult, and the chef d’orchestre is hardly more than a mechanical agent, a time-beater who fires a pistol at the beginning of each section but lets the music run by itself.” (from Memories & Commentaries by Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft).

Do you believe him? Here’s a percussionist talking about playing the piece under him (admittedly Stravinsky was a lot older when this recording was made, and one should always take orchestral players’ reminiscences with a pinch of salt, but…):

And here’s some video of Stravinsky conducting the Firebird so you can make up your own mind about Igor’s waggling credentials:

So. Is conducting The Rite of Spring hard? Is a piece of string long?

That’s a strangely non-committal answer, I know. Stravinsky does, I think, have a point. A lot of the ‘difficulty’ is in the complexity of the cross-rhythms, and the fear of the consequences of derailment – so if you’re the kind of conductor who can do that, then it’s no more difficult than a knotty quadratic equation, and certainly no more complicated than a lot of pieces written since. And the complete lack of rubato lends credence to his assertion that you’re little more than a time-beater. But the sheer size of the orchestra, with the weight of sound that brings, can make the whole thing a cumbersome experience, like negotiating a slalom course in a juggernaut. You do need to be on the ball.

But that’s true of any piece.

What’s probably hardest of all, given the ubiquity of the piece nowadays, is to inject the necessary ‘thrill factor’, to try and make playing and listening to it as close to the visceral, gut-wrenching experience it would have been when it was first written, but without resorting to lunatic extremes of tempo.

For the orchestra? Well, yeah, it’s still pretty hard – if they can play it, you can conduct it, as long as you don’t get in the way.

Incidentally, “As long as you don’t get in the way” is (a) true of most conducting and (b) not as easy as you think.

Anyway, a pleasant half-hour on YouTube this morning threw up these. I especially like the last one.

Stravinsky talking about it:

The famous excerpt from Fantasia (Stravinsky hated this, by the way):

The Rite of Spring is so simple a 5-year-old can conduct it:

Breaking the silence – a bassoonist speaks:

This one’s for the real nerds. Thirty-seven different versions of the famous “Augurs” chords, from 1921 to today. It becomes quite mesmerising after a bit:

The internet is a strange place:

Do feel free to share your Rite of Spring experiences below. Do you love it? Hate it? Never heard it? Who is this Stravinsky bloke anyway?

UPDATE: I knew I’d forgotten one.

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  1. love the piece – have seen it danced 4 times (3 with 2 piano, 1 with full orchestra) and played it at least 5 times. I qualify as a nerd – I listened to that full extract

  2. I suppose you’ve heard the story about Bernstein conducting the whole thing in 4 in front if Stravinsky and him never noticing… Not sure whether this is a myth or not but it has a nice Ring to it, if you pardon the anniversary-related pun…

  3. Great post, Lev.

    Played it a few months ago. It struck me how incredibly necessary the conductor was (Robert Max, on this occasion) at certain points, particularly on the stroke that brings the full might of the brass to an instant silent stop. This was a fantastically competent brass section to be part of, and the sound was fully amazingly loud right up to the cutoff. Not one player over. Wow. Just WOW.

    Oh, and lots phewphewphewIdidn’tmessup relief.

  4. Here’s a new arrangement from Anderson & Roe, one of my favourite piano duos/duetists (?), together with David Lynch-esque video:

    And if you don’t like their Stravinsky, check out their Star Wars suite…

  5. I think I’m up to 6 perforances by various orchestras so far including one with amazing lazer lighting and solo ballerina at the CBSH. Can’t get enough of the piece.

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