STRAVINSKY:  Les Noces (The Wedding)  │ Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)

Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky was born in Oranienbaum, now Lomonosov in the Northwest Saint Petersburg Region of the Russian Republic, Russia, on June 17, 1882, and died in New York City on April 6, 1971. He made the first notations for Les Noces in June 1914, assembling the text from a collection of traditional Russian wedding songs, and completed the first version of the score, the one heard at these concerts, on October 11, 1917. The scoring underwent several radical changes, and the final and most familiar version of the score with four pianos and percussion was achieved in the spring of 1923. The first performance of that version, preceded by a private hearing at the house of Princess Edmond de Polignac (a.k.a. Winnaretta Singer, the American sewing-machine heiress), was given in Paris on June 13, 1923, by the Ballets Russes with Ernest Ansermet conducting. The work was first heard in the United States on February 14, 1926, when Leopold Stokowski conducted a concert performance at a Composers Guild concert in New York. Niklaus Wyss led the first SFS performances in April 1974. The 1923 version was last performed by the San Francisco Symphony during the Stravinsky Festival in June 1999, when Michael Tilson Thomas led performances with soprano Susan Narucki, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane, tenor Clifton Forbis, baritone Kevin Short, pianists Peter Grunberg, Marc Shapiro, Julie Steinberg, and Robin Sutherland, and the SFS Chorus. The scoring of the final version of The Wedding calls for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists, four-part chorus, and an instrumental ensemble consisting of four pianos with timpani, xylophone, large and small snare drums, large and small side drums without snares, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, triangle, two tambourines, a bell tuned to B natural, and antique cymbals on B natural and C-sharp. Performance time: about twenty-three minutes.

Stravinsky composed Le Sacre du printemps in Ustilug, Ukraine and Clarens, Switzerland in 1911-12, making further alterations in 1913 and in 1943, among other points in the work’s complicated editorial history. The score is dedicated to Nicholas Roerich, who designed sets and costumes for the original ballet production. The work was premiered on May 29, 1913—a hundred years and three weeks ago—at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, as a staged production of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with Pierre Monteux conducting. Monteux also led the first San Francisco Symphony performances of the original 1913 version in February 1939. Over the years the score has appeared in various revisions that have allowed corrections of unintended errors and oversights as well as alterations of details by the composer. This performance uses the edition marked “Revised 1947; New edition 1967,” brought out by Boosey & Hawkes, which had just acquired the work’s copyright. The San Francisco Symphony first performed the revised version in April 1988, with David Atherton conducting. The most recent performances, in June 2010, were led by Michael Tilson Thomas. The orchestration calls for three flutes plus piccolo and alto flute (third flute doubling second piccolo), four oboes and English horn (fourth oboe doubling second English horn), three clarinets plus E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet (second clarinet doubling second bass clarinet), four bassoons and contrabassoon (fourth bassoon doubling second contrabassoon), eight horns (seventh and eighth doubling tenor tubas, a.k.a. Wagner tubas), three trombones, two bass tubas, five timpani (divided between two players), bass drum, tam-tam, triangle, tambourine, guiro, antique cymbals, and strings. The work’s Russian title, Vesna svyashchennaya, is almost never used outside of Slavic lands; its literal translation might be Sacred Spring. Stravinsky reported that the common French title Le Sacre du printemps (and the ensuing English wording The Rite of Spring) was the translation supplied by the artist Léon Bakst, one of Diaghilev’s set and costume designers, but that something along the lines of The Coronation of Spring would have reflected the connotation of his original title more closely. Performance time: about thirty-five minutes.

Les Noces

By any name—The Wedding or Svadebka or Les Noces—this is an amazing work. In this joyous and emotionally charged masterpiece, evoking a Russian peasant wedding, Stravinsky brings us the gift of wondrous variety, from the keening of the bride and the deep seriousness of the invocation of saints and the Virgin Mary, through the giddy exuberance of the party music, to the solemnly ecstatic close. Having created a swirl of images by running together fragments of talk and ritual, the composer once compared it, aptly, to Joyce’s Ulysses. There, “the reader seems to be overhearing scraps of conversation without the connecting thread of discourse. But [Les Noces] might also be compared to Ulysses in the larger sense that both works are trying to present rather than to describe.

There are four scenes or, as Stravinsky preferred to call them, tableaux. In the first, the bride is made ready and her hair is bound in red and blue ribbons. Leaving home, she weeps, but she does so in part because weeping is part of the ritual. The second scene is the parallel one at the house of the groom. Then comes the bride’s departure from her house, followed by the wedding feast. This final tableau is a whirlwind of drinking, talk, toasts, and games. An older couple is chosen to warm the marriage bed, and at last the bride and groom enter the bedroom, while their four parents station themselves outside the door. The last words we hear are the new husband’s declaration of love to his wife.

We pick up a few names along the way—the groom is called Fetis Pamfilievich and the bride Nastasia Timofeyevna—but the four solo singers do not correspond to specific characters. The lines of the groom, for example, are sung by the tenor in the second tableau, but the closing words in the bedroom are given to the bass. 

Usually, with a vocal work, I suggest that the best way in is found by following the text; here, though, if you are going to try to follow the libretto word by word, you are going to miss most of the music. The text is long, something like 2,500 words, and most of them go by at lightning speed. For these performances, we have departed from our standard practice of supplying a complete printed text both in the original language and in English translation. Instead, we give you a paraphrased text, in which the translator, Marika Kuzma, Music Director of the University Chorus at UC Berkeley, has rendered the essence of Les Noces; the occasional Russian transliterations are intended to help you orient yourself in the musical torrent.   

Almost nine years separate the first sketches from the final double bar of the last version of the score. Stravinsky began Les Noces a little more than a year after the premiere of The Rite of Spring, and he had just finished his opera  Le Rossignol (The Nightingale), some of which harks back to his studies with Rimsky-Korsakov and some of which is situated in the adventurous new music of the immediate prewar years. By the time Les Noces was completed, Stravinsky had written The Soldier’s Tale, Pulcinella, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and the Octet for Winds. It was a time, for him, of drastic re-examination of ideas about composing, the time in which the later Stravinsky was born.

While the compositional plan of Les Noces was fixed by the fall of 1917, it took Stravinsky a long time to arrive at the festive sound of the final version. His first idea, realized in the 1917 score, was to use an orchestra with many wind instruments, but to add to this richly flavorful palette the sound of the cimbalom, a kind of Hungarian folk zither, and, by way of strings, use only eight solo instruments (looking—or hearing—ahead to Pulcinella of 1919-20 and the other spare scores of the later years.)

In 1919 Stravinsky came closer to his final idea, using an ensemble of harmonium, two cimbaloms, pianola, bass drum, tambourine, with snare drum, triangles, and cymbals of various sizes. The sound is marvelous, reminiscent of music outside the Western concert tradition. The 1919 score is excited and exciting, all nerve endings. The four pianos of the 1923 version added weight and solemnity to the buzz. A feeling of festivity, that essential Les Noces declaration of love to the world that had formed the composer, is grandly and movingly present.

Le Sacre du printemps

As musicians go, Igor Stravinsky started rolling toward his profession rather late. He was not one of those composers who started picking out tunes on the piano even before they could walk. Stravinsky didn’t begin piano lessons until he was nine, but these were soon supplemented by private tutoring in harmony and counterpoint. His parents supported his musical inclinations, all the more laudable since they knew what their teenager was getting into. (Stravinsky’s father was a bass singer at the opera houses of Kiev and, later, Saint Petersburg; his mother was an accomplished amateur pianist.) As it happened, one of Stravinsky’s friends at school was the son of the celebrated composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. When Stravinsky’s father died, in December 1902, Rimsky-Korsakov became something of a mentor, both personal and musical, to the aspiring composer. By 1907, Stravinsky (already twenty-five years old) was ready to bestow an opus number on one of his compositions, a Symphony in E-flat, which he dedicated to his great teacher. Only a year later, Rimsky-Korsakov would be dead, but his star pupil was ready to strike out as his own.

Stravinsky achieved several notable works during those student years, but his breakthrough to fame arrived when he embarked on a string of collaborations with the ballet impresario Sergei (a.k.a. Serge) Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes, launched in Paris in 1909, became quickly identified with the cutting edge of the European arts scene. Stravinsky’s first Diaghilev project was modest: a pair of Chopin orchestrations for the 1909 Ballets Russes production of Les Sylphides. The production was a success, but some critics complained that the troupe’s choreographic and scenic novelty was not matched by its conservative musical scores. Diaghilev set about addressing this by commissioning new ballet scores, of which the very first was Stravinsky’s Firebird, premiered in 1910. Thus began an involvement that continued through some of the most irreplaceable items in the history of Modernist stage music: Petrushka (premiered in 1911), Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring, 1913), The Nightingale (Le Rossignol, 1914), Pulcinella (1920), Mavra (1922), Reynard (1922), Les Noces (The Wedding, 1923), Oedipus Rex (1927), and Apollon musagète (Apollo, 1928).

Thanks to the success of The Firebird, among other works, Stravinsky was somewhat famous before May 29, 1913, but the events of that date—the premiere of Le Sacre du printemps and the accompanying riot by the Paris audience—catapulted him, and modern music, onto a path from which there was no turning back. The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées had opened less than two months before on Avenue Montaigne, a street known, then as now, for its upper-crust, essentially conservative establishments. The theater was appropriately elegant (and remains so), although its decorative appointments were very up-to-date in 1913, enough to alarm a public accustomed to imbibing culture in neo-Baroque surroundings. The theater’s initial bout of programming was far from scurrilous (though the mid-May premiere of Debussy’s Jeux caused anxiety through its suggestions of a ménage à trois), and when the spring season concluded with the “saison russe” of opera and ballet, Diaghilev’s productions alternated with the premiere performances of Gabriel Fauré’s opera Pénélope, on a double-bill with a ballet setting of Debussy’s Nocturnes, both of which tempered their adventurous ideas with an overriding lyricism.

By May 29, the audience was ready to let loose, and it had been primed to do so by advance press reports that not only ensured a sell-out house but also primed the pumps of Parisian cultural gossip. A press release that was reprinted in several Paris newspapers on the day of the premiere tantalized through references to the “stammerings of a semi-savage humanity” and “frenetic human clusters wrenched incessantly by the most astonishing polyrhythm ever to come from the mind of a musician,” promising “a new thrill which will surely raise passionate discussions, but which will leave all true artists with an unforgettable impression.” Cognoscenti already knew how Stravinsky’s score had perplexed the enormous orchestra in the course of its seventeen rehearsals—not counting its rehearsals with the dancers. Even Diaghilev’s ballet master, Enrico Cecchetti, proclaimed, “I think the whole thing has been done by four idiots: First, M. Stravinsky, who wrote the music. Second, M. [Nicholas] Roerich, who designed the scenery and costumes. Third, M. [Vaslav] Nijinsky, who composed the dances. Fourth, M. Diaghilev, who wasted money on it.”

The balletic evening opened with Les Sylphides and closed with Weber’s Le Spectre de la rose and Borodin’s Dances from Prince Igor. But what everybody was really there to witness was the second item on the program, and they came ready to participate in accordance with their aesthetic stances; some even had the foresight to arm themselves with whistles. Audible protests apparently accompanied the performance from the opening bars, but things stayed somewhat under control until halfway into the Introduction—which is to say, for about the first minute of the score. Then, to quote Stravinsky, they escalated into “demonstrations, at first isolated, [which] soon became general, provoking counter-demonstrations and very quickly developing into a terrific uproar.” These continued throughout the performance, during which partisans brawled, socialites slapped their neighbors, gentlemen challenged each other to duels, the house lights flashed on and off (Diaghilev’s curious—and ineffectual—attempt to restore order), and Nijinsky stood on a chair just offstage to shout cues to the perplexed dancers. Thus was history made.

The initial scenario for Le Sacre du printemps was created jointly by Stravinsky and the designer Nicholas Roerich, a controversial figure who later emigrated to New York, where his work is celebrated to this day at the little-known and rather peculiar Nicholas Roerich Museum on West 107th Street. The scenario Roerich and Stravinsky employed went through a process of evolution, but it reached a final form in a text that Stravinsky prepared, in the autumn of 1913, for inclusion in the printed programs when the piece received its concert premiere the following winter:

Le Sacre du printemps is a musical choreographic work. It represents pagan Russia and is unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of creative power of Spring. The piece has no plot, but the choreographic sequence is as follows:

FIRST PART: THE ADORATION OF THE EARTH
The Spring celebration. The pipers pipe and young men tell fortunes. The old woman enters. She knows the mystery of nature and how to predict the future. Young girls with painted faces come in from the river in single file. They dance the Spring dances. Games start. The Spring Korovod [a stately dance]. The people divide into two opposed groups. The holy procession of the wise old men. The oldest and wisest interrupts the Spring games, which come to a stop. The people pause trembling before the Great Action. The old men bless the earth. The Kiss of the Earth. The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it.

SECOND PART: THE GREAT SACRIFICE
At night the virgins hold mysterious games, walking in circles. One of the virgins is consecrated as the victim and is twice pointed to by fate, being caught twice in the perpetual circle of walking-in-rounds. The virgins honor her, the Chosen One, with a marital dance. They invoke the ancestors and entrust the Chosen One to the old wise men. She sacrifices herself in the presence of the old men in the Great Sacred Dance, THE GREAT SACRIFICE.

Stravinsky’s score has gone down in history as a seminal document of Modernism, bravely forging beyond the already imaginative steps the composer had taken in his works to date. Musicologists have shown that a fair amount of the melodic material in Le Sacre du printemps has at least some connection to actual folk melodies—including the famous, high-pitched bassoon solo that opens the piece, which traces its roots to a Lithuanian folk tune. The fact that so much detective work needed to go into tracing these connections is itself a comment on how completely Stravinsky made these melodies his own. The primal, folk-like spirit of the melodies is translated into a bold musical context marked by polytonal harmonies, unorthodox metric alternations and rhythmic displacements; this constant tension between the simplistic and the complex is a hallmark of the piece. The overriding character of the score resides in proximity to violence. Even the relatively relaxed introductions to the two sections display a measure of nervousness. Where another composer might have used the preludial music to set a bucolic spring-scene against which the proceedings might unroll, Stravinsky said that his opening introduction “should represent the awakening of nature, the scratching, gnawing, wiggling of birds and beasts.”

Like the audience, the critics were divided about Le Sacre du printemps, but some simply foundered in a state of perplexity. Henri Quittard’s assessment appeared in Le Figaro on May 31, 1913, two days after the premiere:

Here is a strange spectacle, of a laborious and puerile barbarity, which the audience of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées received without respect. And we are sorry to see an artist such as M. Stravinsky involve himself in this disconcerting adventure, from whom Music, after The Firebird or Petrushka, could have expected further beautiful works. . . . Can M. Stravinsky imagine that a melody, because it is doubled a second higher or lower for fifty measures—or both at once—will gain a decisive and eloquent intensity? It seems so since it is so, and since the novelties contained in the score of Le Sacre du printemps are normally of this order. And since no one has the right to suspect the sincerity of an artist—especially when he has already proven that he is one—what is left to do? Give up trying to understand it, and deplore such a strange aberration. . . .  Certainly the history of music is full of anecdotes where the ignorance of critics shines forth when they were unable to recognize creative genius when it appeared. Is the future saving up a triumphant revenge for new music as M. Stravinsky seems to understand it today? That is its own secret. But, to tell the truth, I doubt that our disgrace is very near.

Quittard was wise to hedge his bets. After a cooling-off period—and a world war—Diaghilev produced Le Sacre du printemps again, this time with entirely new choreography. That version, introduced on December 15, 1920—with Ernest Ansermet conducting at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées—provoked far less demonstrative passion that the premiere had seven and a half years earlier, and since that time quite a few other productions have made their way to the stage. (Surely the most widely witnessed of all Sacre productions was the one Walt Disney devised for his 1941 animated film Fantasia, in which prehistoric creatures evolve from primeval slime to the accompaniment of a considerably altered take on Stravinsky’s score.) Nonetheless, Le Sacre du printemps would never acquire the popularity as a staged ballet that it would as a concert work. Within a year of its ballet premiere it was offered in concert both in Moscow (in February 1914, with Serge Koussevitzky conducting) and in Paris (in April 1914, at the Casino de Paris, with Monteux on the podium), and it would quickly earn the preeminent place in the symphonic literature that it retains to this day.

—Michael Steinberg (Les Noces) andJames M. Keller (Le Sacre du printemps)

Stravinsky and Folk Music

A striking scene in the 2006 SFS Media Keeping Score video Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring features two Russian women, both dressed in traditional costume, singing a celebratory Russian folk song while accompanying themselves on hand-made percussion instruments. Their joyous and raucous whoops are juxtaposed with the bruising accents and volcanic surges that conclude Part I of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The comparison provides compelling proof of The Rite’s elemental Russian flavor and may be a revelation to those who associate Le Sacre more with Picasso and Joyce than earthy peasant women in a Ukrainian log cabin. To be sure, The Rite of Spring is a towering landmark of twentieth century music. But it is also a deep manifestation of the Russian spirit, shot through and through with not just the melodies, but also the vibrant rhythms and jubilant style of the Russian countryside.

Stravinsky was to become such an icon of cosmopolitan modernism that his origins as a distinctly nationalist composer were obscured, although never altogether forgotten. Later in life, he reminisced about his early encounters with Russian folk music. He tells us in Expositions and Developments about his babyhood impressions of countrywomen around the Ukrainian village of L’zy, where his father had rented a summer dacha:

The countrywomen of L’zy sang an attractive and restful song on their way home from the fields in the evening, a song I have recalled in the early hours of evening at odd times throughout my life. They sang it in octaves—unharmonized, of course—their high shrill voices sounding like a billion bees.

The young Stravinsky spent three summers at Pechisky, his aunt’s estate in the Ukraine near Khmel’nitsky, then known as Proskurov. It was during those summers that Stravinsky came to know the sounds and sights of country fairs, the people dressed in brilliant colors and dancing energetic dances such as the presyatka (heel dance), the kazachok (kicking dance), and the more familiar trepak. Many years later some of those impressions bore fruit in Stravinsky’s 1911 ballet Petrushka. In the fourth tableau, dancers perform a kazachok, presyatka,and even a trepak within a heady mélange of music that mixes original composition with folk tunes, some of them trukha, everyday ditties as familiar to Russians as “Three Blind Mice” and “Happy Birthday” are to Americans.

Stravinsky might have fondly remembered his early exposure to folk music, but from the 1920s onwards he became increasingly reluctant to acknowledge its influence on his own compositions, particularly his early works. By the 1950s his demurs had hardened to the point of downright denial, especially apropos The Rite of Spring, by then enshrined as a modernist monument:

I was guided by no system whatever in Le Sacre du printemps. When I think of the other composers of that time who interest me—Berg, who is synthetic (in the best sense), Webern, who is analytic, and Schoenberg, who is both—how much more theoretical their music seems than Le Sacre;and these composers were supported by a great tradition, whereas very little immediate tradition lies behind Le Sacre du printemps. 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.

In his magisterial study Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions American scholar Richard Taruskin took on Stravinsky’s obfuscations and sought not only clarification, but also motive:

The story of his life—and, even more so, of his musical development—teems with riddles. The biggest of them concern his musical origins and his early (“Russian”) period, despite the fact that it was the period of his most famous works, and despite the voluminous Stravinsky literature, so much of it contributed by the composer himself. For as his career proceeded along its spectacular course he became increasingly embarrassed by his past and did all he could to force it down an Orwellian memory hole.

Truth will prevail, however, and there can be no doubt of Stravinsky’s massive debt to the rhythms, melodies, styles, and social functions of Russian folk music. Those influences are particularly strong in Les Noces, a celebration of a rustic Russian wedding ceremony. Stravinsky drew from published collections of wedding songs, particularly a 1911 compilation of texts and rituals by Piotr Vasilevich Kireyevsky (1808-56). Although no music was included in the compilation, the dialects of Stravinsky’s chosen texts led Dmitri Pokrovsky and his ensemble to explore the southern and western regions of Russia in search of the melodies that might have underpinned Stravinsky’s strongly folk-flavored settings.

In addition to performing Les Noces with the vocal stylizations of Russian folk music—as opposed to the classically-trained voices normally employed in concert performances—the Pokrovsky Ensemble has assembled a musical portrayal of a Russian wedding ceremony, or svadba, told in folk songs that follow the sequence typical of such a ritual, which in southern and western Russia is divided into three sections: matchmaking, the engagement, and the ceremony proper.

Matchmaking occurs in private, as village elders acting as agents for the groom open negotiations with the bride’s family. Taking on traditional roles, the negotiators act as hunters or merchants, while the bride’s father accuses them of thievery and tries to force them from his house. For a little while, anyway: should the match be amenable, soon enough an exchange of vodka and bread seals the deal.

The engagement, or propoy, is the planning stage in which all concerned discuss their roles in the wedding. The father of the bride drinks a glass in a symbolic gesture of his agreement with the match, all to the accompaniment of communal songs such as “Cosmas and Demian” and “The Drinker” (Propoinick). The bride sings her farewells to her family, typically in exaggeratedly loud and weepy laments such as “Green Forest.”

The wedding ceremony proper begins at the groom’s home, the entourage organized like a quasi-military battalion. Songs of blessing (“God Bless, Jesus”) give way to a wedding train on the way to the bride’s house, accompanied quite naturally by a series of communal songs such as “My White Peas,” “Berry,” and “In the House.” After the formal church ceremony, the party travels to the groom’s house, where wedding presents (and more songs) follow. Finally it is time for the bride and groom to depart for their wedding night, perhaps to the accompaniment of the downright risqué song “The Bed.”

Stravinsky’s Les Noces portrays the complex traditional ceremony with all its celebratory brio intact. The work did not spring into being overnight, however; it went through a number of drafts and revisions, some incomplete, before Stravinsky finally settled on the spectacular final setting for four pianos, percussion, soloists, and chorus in 1923. A completed 1919 draft featured dueling cimbaloms (Hungarian hammered dulcimers), harmonium, and chamber orchestra. Compared to the flamboyant percussiveness of the 1923 revision of Les Noces (performed in these concerts),the 1919 version is lighter, softer, and much more obviously underpinned by folk elements. The cimbalom appears to be have been intended to mimic the guzla, a rustic string instrument that, according to Stravinsky was “a kind of fine metal-stringed balalaika” that was “strapped over the player’s head like the tray of a cigarette girl in a night club.” Stravinsky was obviously fond of the instrument’s sound, describing it as “deliciously live and bright, but it is preciously tiny, too.”

Stravinsky may have discounted his indebtedness to folk music, but he never disavowed every single folk influence. He acknowledged that he had sourced The Rite of Spring’s haunting opening bassoon solo from a collection of Lithuanian wedding songs, published in Krakow in 1900 and edited by Father Anton Juszkiewicz. What he didn’t say is that the opening solo is only one of five melodies in Le Sacre found in Juszkiewicz’s Melodje ludowe litewskie. Stravinsky’s sketchbook for Le Sacre makes it clear that he dipped quite deeply into the Juszkiewicz collection, even in some cases conflating one melody with another. Richard Taruskin notes that the lion’s share of the melodies from the collection are located at the bottom right corner of the book’s pages, suggesting “a cursory riffling of the pages, eyes fixed on one spot, as Stravinsky’s ‘method’ of choosing from this dauntingly conspicuous source.”

Other melodies have been traced to Sergei Lyapunov and Fedor Mikhailovich Istomin’s folk song collections from the 1890s, particularly Pesni russkogo naroda (Songs of the Russian People) of 1899. Whatever the sources, Stravinsky’s chosen melodies all fall into the general category of seasonal or calendar songs—that is, melodies associated with the very festivals upon which the designer Nicholas Roerich based his scenario. Certain characteristics common to those melodies became signature elements of Le Sacre as well.

Repeated notes make up one of those elements, such as in the tune “Kad aš ėjau par dvarạ”that appears to stand behind the hammerstroke repetitions of Le Sacre’s“Harbingers of Spring.” Another aspect is ostinato, or musical figures that repeat themselves obsessively, surely one of the most conspicuous features of Le Sacre’s driving primitivism. Most of these melodies are also limited in range, spanning five some-odd notes at the most, an unmistakable characteristic of The Rite of Spring;another is Stravinsky’s evocation of the combinatorial performance style typical of the Russian countryside, in which singers do not perform set songs from beginning to end, but rather spontaneously interleave short segments of melody and text, resulting in music that remains fresh and unique no matter what the antiquity or familiarity of the individual tunes. That patchwork of tunes and rhythms is one of the most striking features of The Rite of Spring, as folk-inspired melodies come and go over repetitive rhythmic figurations.

Stravinsky was not content with limiting himself only to Russian melodies. His orchestration also sought to evoke the rustic sound of folk instruments, without actually obliging orchestra managers to track down, or even make, such instruments. In addition to the aforementioned cimbaloms in Les Noces,considerthe high range of Le Sacre’sopening bassoon solo; well above a bassoonist’s normal comfort zone, the evocative passage hints at hand-made peasant pipes with their imperfect intonation and uneven tone.

Stravinsky once claimed that “while I did not actually turn to folk music as source material, I was undoubtedly influenced by it.” Stravinsky’s definition of source materialmay be open to debate, but there can be no question as to influence. Stravinsky’s early music teems with the sounds, rhythms, and styles of Russian folk music. He may have developed a pan-European, cosmopolitan, and elegant musical language. He may have lived in France, Switzerland, and the United States—West Hollywood, no less. But he never altogether lost his connection to his roots, deeply entwined in the vibrant life of the Russian heartland.

 

—Scott Foglesong

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

A portion of James Keller’s note appeared previously in the programs of the New York Philharmonic and is used with permission.

Scott Foglesong is a contributing writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book and Chair of the Department of Musicianship and Music Theory at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

More About the Music
Recordings  For Les Noces—Leonard Bernstein conducting the English Bach Festival Choir and the English Bach Festival Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon, out of print but available through arkivmusic.com)  |  Robert Craft conducting the Simon Joly Chorale and the Tristan Fry Percussion Ensemble (Naxos)  |  Stravinsky conducting the American Concert Choir, with an interesting group of piano soloists: American composers Roger Sessions, Lukas Foss, Aaron Copland, and Samuel Barber (Sony) | For a more folk-oriented approach, Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble (Nonesuch)

For The Rite of Spring—Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media, also RCA Victor Red Seal, part of a three-CD set including The Firebird and Perséphone)  |  Igor Stravinsky conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (CBS Masterworks) | Valery Gergiev conducting the Kirov Theatre Orchestra (Philips) 

DVD  In the DVD Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, part of the San Francisco Symphony’s Keeping Score series, MTT and SFS musicians introduce the composer and the work, and offer a complete performance of The Rite of Spring (SFS Media, also available online at keepingscore.org).

Reading  Stravinsky: The Composer and His Works, by Eric Walter White, Second Edition (University of California Press)  |  The Music of Stravinsky, by Stephen Walsh (Clarendon Press of Oxford University Press)  |  Stravinsky: A Creative Spring: Russia and France 1882-1934, also by Walsh (Knopf)  |  Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, by Richard Taruskin (University of California Press, two volumes)  |  Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring, by Peter Hill (Cambridge University Press)  |  Stravinsky and “The Rite of Spring”: the Beginnings of a Musical Language, by Pieter C. van den Toorn (University of California Press)  |  Several books of conversations between Stravinsky and Robert Craft, including Expositions and Developments, Conversations with Igor Stravinsky, and Memories and Commentaries (all University of California Press)  |  Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents, with text by Craft and illustrations selected by Vera Stravinsky (Simon & Schuster)