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The Revolutionary Role of the Composer - Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring
The première of The Rite of Spring was a momentous and much anticipated occasion, and it reveals some of the underlying factors within artistic composition.
Igor Stravinsky composed the Rite of Spring in 1913, 4 years before the Russian Revolution. Although he was himself opposed to the revolution, Stravinsky’s music, especially the Rite of Spring, encompassed a similar sense of longing for a grounding in nationalistic culture - a need for people to return to the motherland, after new technologies and international relations had driven them too far from their origins.
This reclaiming of a sense of identity is manifested in the Rite of Spring, in its raw and primitive nature, based around Russian folk tunes, and driven by a strong rhythmic force. The premiere of the ballet, in the Theatre des Champs-Elysées, is legendary as having caused an uproar in the audience, due to the unpredictable, provocative music and dancing. However, although the Rite of Spring was admittedly very different to the ballets of Tchaikovsky, and the music completely contrasted that of Schumann or Brahms, the audience’s reaction is nonetheless surprising, when considering what had led Stravinsky to composing this ‘revolutionary’ work.
In order to understand Stravinsky’s reasoning, we must look at the work of his only teacher; Rimsky-Korsakov, who was a member of the ‘mighty five’ (Balakirev, Kui, Mussorgsky, Borodina and Rimsky-Korsakov) - five composers who had been brought into the public eye in Russia by the music critic Stassov. These composers were on a search for Russian identity in their music - Russian music at the time was seen as too influenced by Western music, and not sufficiently Russian. Thus, these five men, who were not professionally trained in a Conservatory, compared to elite composers like Tchaikovsky, went to Balakirev’s apartment on a regular basis, and tried to learn the essence of Russian folk songs and musical composition, together. Balakirev is known as the head of the five, and they were all attempting to use Russian folk music to create a sense of Russian identity in their music, although some went further than others - Mussorgsky, unafraid to shock the audience in search of the most direct approach to expressing himself, wrote so outrageously, that his friend Rimsky-Korsakov took the pains to ‘correct’ some of the more raw and dissonant elements of Mussorgsky’s compositions.
The young Stravinsky rose to fame through a commission by his first patron, Sergei Diaghilev, who was a firm believer in authenticity in Russian art. He asked Stravinsky to compose music for the season following his ballet, Les Ballets Russes, which itself showed off the most fantastic expectations of Russian art. In response, Stravinsky wrote ‘The Firebird’, a ballet echoing many of the techniques used by his teacher in the opera Mlada. Rimsky-Korsakov was very much steeped in Russian nationalism, having been a cadet in the Imperial Russian Navy, and later, after becoming a professor at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, the inspector of brass bands at the Imperial Navy. His music was often based around fairytales, and stories of the pagan gods of ancient Russia. The Firebird was first performed in June 1910, five years after the 1905 revolution, which was seen as the ‘dress-rehearsal’ for that which occurred in 1917. Stravinsky’s second ballet, Petrushka, echoed this change in emphasis from European music, where rhythm was secondary to melody and harmony, to a ballet dominated by rhythm and using more dissonant harmonies.
Petrushka bridged the gap between Stravinsky’s Rimsky-Korsakov-style, fairytale-inspired The Firebird, to The Rite of Spring, which was inspired instead by the summers he spent in Ustilug, an old village in the Russian countryside, where he was exposed to older styles of music steeped in harvest traditions. In ‘The Rite of Spring’, Stravinsky challenged peoples’ ideas about different instruments, with the opening bassoon solo in the highest registers of the instrument, and thus unrecognisable to many audience members, including the composer Saint-Seans. This effect was done to imitate the sound of untrained voices singing Russian folk music, showing his intention to use the more modern, highly developed classical instruments, to convey traditional music of the Russian countryside. The dance used similar ideas - it was choreographed by Nijinsky, a famous Russian ballet dancer trained in the Romantic style, but the dance itself contradicted many of the traditions of this style, with the bodies of the dancers completely covered, and the teams of dancers moving, always close to the floor, in patterns, rather than the soloistic, leaping dances that Nijinsky was known for. The content of the ballet was also extremely provocative, with the height of the story being the end of the sacrificial dance, where a young girl’s neck snaps, following the dance to her death.
Therefore, on one hand, it is unsurprising that the audience reacted as such in the Theatre des Champs-Elysées - the outrageous story, the unusual costumes and uses of the instruments all lend themselves to a strong reaction. On the other hand, however, would it not have been anticipated by the audience, because of the rise of the mighty five? After all, it was very unconventional for a group of musicians who were not trained professionally, to become so popular. Furthermore, with the Russian Revolution brewing in the air, and the shift in Stravinsky’s music from the Firebird to Petrushka, surely, the audience would have come to the première expecting to hear something shocking and different. However, it seems that Stravinsky, in attempting to return to his Russian peasant roots, pushed a little too far, and the change was not tolerated by an audience, even an audience which one would expect to be relatively open to new sights and sounds. Thus, we can see in this première firstly the cyclical nature of advancement; where people push boundaries and explore new areas before yearning for a sense of home once again, and secondly, the delicate balance artists must operate within - the necessity for creators to push against traditions in order to be innovating, but the equal necessity for them to create within the boundaries of what is considered acceptable art (which we can also see in Rimsky-Korsakov correcting Mussorgsky’s compositions), and what the audience is expecting to experience when they purchase the tickets.
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