Program Notes

Le Sacre du printemps

BORN:  June 17, 1882. Oranienbaum, Russia
DIED: April 6, 1971. New York City

COMPOSED: In 1911-12, in Ustilug, Ukraine and Clarens, Switzerland; Stravinsky made 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.

PREMIERE: The work was premiered on May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, as a staged production of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with Pierre Monteux conducting. Monteux also led the first SFS performances of the original 1913 version in February 1939. Over the years the score has appeared in various revisions. This performance uses the edition marked “Revised 1947; New edition 1967,” brought out by Boosey & Hawkes, which had just acquired the work’s copyright

SFS PERFORMANCESFIRST—April 1988 (revised version), David Atherton led. MOST RECENT—June 2017. Susanna Mälkki conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes plus piccolo and alto flute (3rd flute doubling 2nd piccolo), 4 oboes and English horn (4th oboe doubling 2nd English horn), 3 clarinets plus E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet (2nd clarinet doubling 2nd bass clarinet), 4 bassoons and contrabassoon (4th bassoon doubling 2nd contrabassoon), 8 horns (7th and 8th doubling tenor tubas, a.k.a. Wagner tubas), 4 trumpets plus high trumpet in D and bass trumpet, 3 trombones, 2 bass tubas, 5 timpani (divided between 2 players), bass drum, tam-tam, triangle, tambourine, guiro, antique cymbals, and strings

DURATION: About 35 mins

THE BACKSTORY 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.

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 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:

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.

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.

THE MUSIC  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.

James M. Keller

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


Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media; MTT and the SFS also recorded Le sacre for 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) 

OnlineKeeping Score: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at and on iTunes and Amazon)

ReadingStravinsky: 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 and the Russian Traditions, by Richard Taruskin (University of California Press, two volumes)  |  Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents, with text by Robert Craft and illustrations selected by Vera Stravinsky (Simon & Schuster)

Select recommended recordings listed above are available for purchase at the Symphony Store, located on the Orchestra-level lobby.

(September 2018)

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