Paul Ayick

Survey In Historical Styles MUH 6688


Le Sacre du Printemps

“I was guided by no system whatever in Le Sacre du Printemps. When I think of the music of the other composers of that time who interest me ----- Berg’s music, which is synthetic (in the best sense), and Webern’s, which is analytic — how much more theoretical it seems then Le Sacre. And these composers belong to and were supported by a great tradition. Very little immediate tradition lies behind Le Sacre du Printemps, however, and no theory. I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed.” (Stravinsky.1961.)

How lucky we are to have so much of Stravinsky; his words, thoughts, and even his conducting as a matter of record. The mystery that surrounds many earlier composers, those of the 18th century and earlier, simply does not exist with him, we know the Maestro through both his words and his recordings. Stravinsky says that the idea for the Rite of Spring came to him in a dream.

"I saw in imagination, he recalled, "a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the gods of spring” (Jay. 2004)

Nicholas Roerich who had designed the sets and costumes for the original production of the ballet in 1913 made this same claim of authorship. The musical techniques used by Stravinsky were necessary, he wasn’t merely employing such unusual techniques as polytonality, constantly shifting time signatures, and extended chords to satisfy some whim, some system or to be “modern.” His sole goal was to illustrate this rather macabre story in sound and this he accomplished magnificently indeed. Admittedly this work doesn’t sound quite so “new” to my somewhat jaded, 59 year old ear as it did when I was 19 nevertheless the power of the piece still effects me. I am including with this paper a sound recording of Stravinsky conducting the introduction to the second part of Le Sacre. It depicts the night before the human sacrifice and leads directly into a section called “Mysterious Circle of Adolescents.” (bars 56-63; see attached score reduction) Throughout this entire 63 measure we see Stravinsky’s use of dissonance and irregular rhythm to establish this mood of impending doom. This is not music composed by some system of numbers; this is music that is clearly tonal and I think therein lay the formula for its success. Stravinsky was motivated to properly illustrate with sound this story of human sacrifice and he approaches the task almost in the way a film score composer might.

Although I had conceived the subject of the le Sacre du Printemps without any plot, some plan had to be designed for the sacrificial action For this it was necessary that I should see Roerich. He was staying at the moment at Talachkino, the estate of Princess Tenicheva, a great patron of Russian art. I joined him, and it was there that we settled the visual embodiment of the Sacre and the definite sequence of its different episodes. I began the score on returning to Oustiloug, and worked at it through the winter a Clarens. (Stravinsky. 1962. 36)

The irregular meters of Le Sacre proved problematic for Nijinsky the choreographer. Stravinsky in recalling the rehearsals leading up to the premier in 1913 refers to Nijinsky’s

“ignorance of the most elementary notions of music”

and went on to explain;

“it was exasperating and we advanced at a snail’s pace.” (Stravinsky. 1962. 40,41)

All of this angst is attributable to the unconventional way in which this complex piece of music was structured and notated rhythmically. Stravinsky recalls the premier performance in the spring of 1913 in this way:

“during the whole performance I was at Nijinsky’s side in the wings. He was standing on a chair, screaming “sixteen, seventeen, eighteen”—they (the dancers) had their own method of counting to keep time.” (Stravinsky. 1962. 47)

All of this while the audience was expressing its displeasure by cat calling and erupting into loud, unruly outbursts of laughter; this was not the kind of ballet the audience at Champs-Elysées was used to, Le Sacre remains to this day one of the illustrious works of the 20th century.