An introduction to ‘The Rite of Spring’,
by Igor Stravinsky
The part I of the Rite of Spring starts with an “introduction”. The texture at the very beginning is extremely thin, and the only instrument in use is the bassoon, in an unusually high tessatura. The bassoon is soon joined by the Horn, and later, a pair of clarinets. This little wind ensemble creates an eerie feeling, and the fact that tempo rubato is employed makes the whole start very unstable, as if the ‘grand work’ has just had a bad kick-off. However, this cold start doesn’t last for long. Before soon as more instruments join in, more or less at random, the texture gets thicker and thicker. Each instrument has its own theme, and they seem to come in regardless of each other, similar to the bird-songs that are heard too many times at dawn and shortly after. The strings do not join in until figure 4, and do not play a major part in the introduction. As the morning progresses, the orchestra gets busier and busier with ever twining melodies. At figure 9 the flutes flourish, but at figure 10 Stravinsky introduces 6 solo Double Basses and a Solo cello. This is where the strings start playing a major part in this movement. Though they could not be heard, when this is performed as an orchestral work the effects can be clearly seen. At figure 11 the orchestra has finished its initial eruption and almost all instruments have come in for the first time. The strange effect of glissando harmonics is applied to the viola. However, none of these minute-details can in fact be heard, and the overall effect resembles that of the ‘Representation of Chaos’ from the Creation, though Haydn did not sacrifice the beauty of music when it is used to represent chaos. As the orchestra draws to a ‘climax’ just before figure 12, it sounds as if the sound is cut-off, and the eerie feeling returns as the bassoon takes its initial theme again, with the orchestra silenced. The difference, of course, is that this time the orchestra does not erupt and after a string bridge-passage the next movement greets us.
Movement number 2 is known more commonly as the ‘Dance of the Young Girls’ because in a stage production literally 50 or more young girls will come on stage and dance to this rather bizarre chugging noise. The core of the orchestration in this movement lies with the strings and the Horns: The initial chord being a polytonal superimposition of Eb 7 and F minor. The strings play with all down bows to create a heavy, plodding sound and the Horns do not play at the expected times. There are accented off beats everywhere. At figure 14 and various other points in this movement, the thick homophonic strings stop and our ear is taken by a sudden surge in bassoons and pizzicato cellos. Needless to say, they were all playing in different keys, too, with C major and E minor arpeggios all following each other. This thin sound lasts for four bars exactly before we are yet again plunged into the peasant-like loud chords. Typical of Stravinsky, as he liked quick transposition between episodes so one never knows quite what one is expecting. At figure 15, a fanfare-like figure is introduced on the trumpets and it is passed around the full spectrum of the orchestra. The theme in the Cor Anglais consisting of an ostinato of quavers persists though to figure 18. While the Cor Anglais is playing, various instruments join in, creating almost a dialogue-like effect between the flutes and the rest of the orchestra, again with textures alternating between thin flute ensemble to the full orchestra with horns and brass. At figure 18, everything stops (like it usually does in Stravinsky) and the block-chords in the string section returns. The block chords now persist for a little longer and there are no thin-bassoon solos. Instead of having a break every now and then, this time the bassoon is superimposed on top of the whole string orchestra, playing loudly a simple quaver pattern that signifies power. This eventually is done in some other wind instruments and the movement is finished with a loud bang from the Timpani that roughly resembles the sounds of someone falling off a chair. The orchestra then go wild with a fixed scale pattern, building up to the full orchestra until we eventually reach the ‘Ritual of Abduction’.
In the ‘Ritual of Abduction’, tremelo ideas are used in the strings to create a busy effect. It literally sounds like the whole orchestra playing in excess of 500 notes per second. The wind almost doubles the strings but does not add to the busy effect. After the initial opening a lot of scale patterns were used again, the material derived from the movement before. At figure 40, another fanfare-like figure is introduced on the horns, and this figure can be spotted throughout the rest of the movement. At figure 41, Stravinsky plays around with the stresses in the music thus resulting in funny 9-8 bars subdivided into a 4-8 and another 5-8 bar. Generally the music gets louder and louder, with strange variations in time signature.
Stravinsky was very exact with his specifications in music, so every recording of this work sounds vaguely similar. The orchestra stops just before figure 44, and the fanfare-figure is given another solo on the horn. After some ‘bells in the air’ movement from the horns and fast tremelo from both the strings and the woodwind, the timpani is given a huge BANG at figure 46. As in a lot of Stravinsky’s music, the Timpani and the Double Basses often worked together. On this occasion the cello is also used to reinforce the sound. The less busy quaver-figure is now introduced in the wind section, with regular interjection of Bangs from the Timpani and the lower strings. At the end of the movement it evolves into a dialogue between the busy-buzzing tremelo strings and full orchestral-chordal Bangs. The movement finishes with four Bangs, out of time and the link to the next movement consisting of a trill on the flute and the alto flute.
‘The Spring Rounds’ start with a very simple, quiet, peaceful idea. A pity it is in funny time signatures, because it throws the listener off. The trills on the flute are sustained throughout and the clarinets provide the tune. This is, I think, as close as Stravinsky will ever get to the ‘Pastoral’ scene. This momentary peace is soon interrupted with a ‘Sustained and Heavy’ entry from the springs, which sounds like someone the splashing in mud. Double-stops were utilised in some string sections, notably the viola is given a syncopated rhythm so it could be heard above the rest. This out-of-time figure is to remain with us for the rest of the movement. At the start there is very little happening in the rest of the orchestra, the whole work being fairly quiet up to figure 53. At figure 53, the whole orchestra joins in with the heavy chords, and the resultant sound is loud. One feature of this loud section that sets it apart from the other parts is the presence of a timpani triplet before the main BANG on the chord. These loud chords cease at figure 54, where it gets very much faster (in comparison to the section immediately before) and chaotic fast running scales and arpeggios return. This fast section is inserted with occasional bursts of slow chords and sandwiched in between is the mesh of notes provided by the strings and the woodwind. After figure 56, the initial ‘peaceful’ section returns and this time the alto flute shares the tune with the Clarinet, after which the ‘ritual of the rival tribes’ begin.
As the name suggests, the ‘Ritual of the Rival Tribes’ uses two different themes to signify the two different tribes. One of the tribes initially has the trombone and the trumpet, and they play a syncopated pattern with fairly long notes. The other tribe has the horn, the woodwind and the lower strings, and they play some homophonic chords, mainly quavers. After the initial exposition of the tribal themes, the themes are equally distributed among the orchestral members, and Stravinsky introduces a new scale-pattern in the upper woodwinds. At figure 58, Tribe B is given another shot at playing its solo theme, and two bars later Stravinsky meshes the two tribal themes together which creates an atmosphere of conflict because the themes don’t fit one another at all. After figure 59, multiple ostinato ideas are introduced, including the triplet idea in the bass, which continues throughout the whole movement. The movement merges into the ‘Procession of the Sage’ at figure 66 where the stately walking idea of the Procession is pre-empted three bars early in the bassoons.
In ‘the Sage’, apart from the harmonic chords at the end, Stravinsky only uses five instruments. But how can he portray the image of the respected Sage so effectively with just the five instruments for the whole movement? The reason lies within the choice of the instruments. All the instruments used in ‘the Sage’ were carefully chosen to have an unusually high Tessatura. For example, the contrabassoon was asked to play the F above middle C. This makes it sound very ’strangled’, thus creating the tense effect that he wanted, as if someone important was approaching and everyone stops what they are doing and looks at him. The Sage was built on contrast, as with most of Stravinsky’s 2nd and 3rd period music. The bassoon plays a chord in the background and in contrast with that, is marcato ff shared by the contra bassoon and the contrabass. After all the high-notes on the bass instruments, he takes this even further and has the whole string section playing a mixture of natural and artificial harmonics which sounds even more unnatural. He had achieved the ‘respected’ sage extremely successfully in this short but not empty movement.
The Rite of Spring does not really ‘finish’ in Part 1, as the orchestra just suddenly grind to a halt and Part II follows straight on. As in all Stravinsky’s music, we see very little structure except when the initial theme is recapilulated near the end. The most common form of structure here is the re-use of a theme in all possible aspects (sort-of minimalism) and also the extensive use of ostinato. I think all these are based on thematic cross-references. Stravinsky must have been a very good mathematician to be able to write works like this: it’s all carefully worked out.