Stravinsky: Agon │ Violin Concerto in D Major │ The Rite of Spring

Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky was born on June 18, 1882, in Oranienbaum, now Lomonosov in the Northwest Saint Petersburg Region of the Russian Republic, and died in New York on  April 6, 1971. He began composing Agon, a ballet for twelve dancers, in December 1953, then set it aside to work on In memoriam Dylan Thomas and Canticum Sacrum; he returned to Agon in 1956 and finished it in April 1957. The score is dedicated to Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine. Its first concert performance preceded its first stage performance by half a year, the concert performance being conducted by Robert Craft in Los Angeles on June 17, 1957, and the stage performance being given by the New York City Ballet on December 1, 1957. A little more than a year later, in March 1959, the San Francisco Symphony first performed this music with Enrique Jordá conducting. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the most recent performance in June 1999. The score calls for three flutes, three oboes, three clarinets, three bassoons, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, harp, mandolin, piano, timpani, three tom-toms or high timpani, xylophone, castanets, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-five minutes.

Stravinsky completed his Violin Concerto in 1931, and the first performance took place on October 23 of that year with Samuel Dushkin as soloist and the composer conducting the Berlin Radio Orchestra. With Serge Koussevitzky conducting, Dushkin gave the first performances in the US at Boston Symphony concerts in January 1932. Tossy Spivakovsky was the first violinist to play the work with the SFS, with Pierre Monteux conducting, in November 1948. In the most recent performance, in September 2006, Christian Tetzlaff was soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted. The orchestra consists of two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and high clarinet in E‑flat, three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, eight first and second violins, six violas, four cellos, and four basses. Performance time: about twenty-two 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-Élysées 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. 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.


Stravinsky became an American citizen on December 28, 1945. He had made his first tour of the United States twenty years earlier and moved to New York after the death of his first wife in 1939. A year later, married now to Vera de Bosset, he settled in Los Angeles, where he would remain almost to the end of his long life. Though he was already in his late fifties by the time he settled in this country, Stravinsky had characteristics that made him in some ways quintessentially American—if by that we mean an attitude that embraces great diversity, an exploring openess to the new, and a synthesizing mind that brings many disparate elements together. Michael Tilson Thomas has noted Stravinsky’s “incredible curiosity . . . . He was always interested in discovering something new.”

MTT has said that “the greatest artifact of Stravinsky’s musically omnivorous taste is Agon. Agon is really a collection of musical souvenirs of a season at Monday Evening Concerts [in Los Angeles]. Here Stravinsky records his impressions of Baroque music, Renaissance music, serial music by Schoenberg, Webern and even Boulez. He gives his impressions of them in his wry ‘no more than this is really necessary’ manner.” 

Sometimes I think about what it would have been like to be at some forever irretrievable event such as the first performance of Figaro or Tristan. But never mind: I was at the dance premiere of Agon. And at some rehearsals, too. Stravinsky watched with delight, whispered a lot to Balanchine, and when a viola slide in the Double Pas-de-Quatrewas too refined for him, he walked to the railing of the pit and indicated what he wanted.

It was a Sunday night at the New York City Ballet: December 1, 1957. NYCB was the most exciting institution in New York’s artistic life, choreographer George Balanchine was in his glory period, and Stravinsky, seventy-five that year, had just entered his wondrous Indian summer. Agon, the eleventh of Balanchine’s twenty‑three Stravinsky ballets, proved to be a dazzling feast of musical and dance virtuosity, with the choreographer matching the composer’s wit and invention step for step with his own Stravinskian twists on familiar dance language.

For years it had been said that Stravinsky and Balanchine were planning a ballet to complete the Classical trilogy begun with Apollon musagète (1928) and continued with Orpheus (1948). Though Stravinsky began Agon five years after Orpheus, when he completed it he had produced a work about which there was nothing Classical except its Greek title. Agon means “contest,” and the ballet, whose score specifies how many dancers of each gender are involved in each section, has only dancing as its subject. And, reveling in delight over virtuoso dancing and playing, it is indeed a contest, though, to be sure, a contest without winners or losers. Stravinsky had, however, been in touch with the past insofar as he had picked up some ideas from a seventeenth-century dance manual, and the passage for two trumpets in the Bransle simple in the Second Pas-de-Trois was specifically inspired by an illustration he had seen in that book.

Agon's twenty‑five or so minutes of music is divided into seventeen movements. These are grouped into four sections: a series of Pas-de-Quatre, in which the dancers are introduced, first four, then eight, then all twelve; a three-movement Pas-de-Trois (plus Prelude) for two women and one man; a second three-movement Pas-de-Trois for one woman and two men (with a preceding interlude using the same music as the earlier Prelude); and a Pas-de-Deux, which inspired Balanchine to one of the most moving (and most amusing) among his many great duets. Things are wrapped up by a series of duos and trios and finally a coda for everyone. The music is sometimes grave (the sarabande in the First Pas-de-Trois) and sometimes sensual (the Pas-de-Deux); most of it is swift-moving, dense without being thick, full of rhythmic surprise and enchanting hints of melody, and orchestrally brilliant (but never loud).

Violin Concerto

The idea that Stravinsky should write a violin concerto was born in the minds of Willy Strecker, head of the German publishing house of Schott & Sons, and of Samuel Dushkin, a Polish-born violinist who lived in Paris. Strecker agreed to put the matter to Stravinsky. The composer was reluctant at first, being suspicious of virtuosos in general. He also had doubts about his ability to write something at once brilliant and practicable for the violin, an instrument with which he did not feel at home. Strecker assured him that Dushkin, a cultivated musician as well as an accomplished instrumentalist, would be available to offer advice. Dushkin, for his part, was taken by the idea that he might be Stravinsky’s collaborator. A meeting was arranged at theStreckers’ villa in Wiesbaden, composer and virtuoso proved to like one another, and work was under way as soon as Stravinsky’s concert schedule allowed. The two men met at various times in Paris, at the Stravinsky house just outside Nice, and in Voreppe, a village near Grenoble, where Stravinsky wrote the finale while Dushkin learned the first three movements.

Describing their work together, Dushkin wrote that his “function was to advise Stravinsky how his ideas could best be adapted to the exigencies of the violin as a concert display instrument.”

The collaboration prospered, as did the friendship, which lasted until Stravinsky’s death. Dushkin himself died in New York in 1976. He had introduced Stravinsky’s concerto in nearly a dozen cities on both sides of the Atlantic, and in 1932 he made the first recording of it.

Dushkin also recalled that one day at lunch in a Paris restaurant, Stravinsky “took out a piece of paper and wrote down [a] chord and asked me if it could be played. I had never seen a chord with such an enormous stretch, from the E to the top A, and I said ‘No.’ Stravinsky said sadly, Quel dommage’ [What a pity]. After I got home, I tried it, and, to my astonishment, I found that in that register, the stretch . . . was relatively easy to play, and the sound fascinated me. I telephoned Stravinsky at once to tell him that it could be done. When the concerto was finished, more than six months later, I understood his disappointment when I first said ‘No.’ This chord, in a different dress, begins each of the four movements. Stravinsky himself calls it his ‘passport’ to that concerto.”

To begin with, the passport, plus three further upbeating chords for the soloist with plucked cellos and basses, opens the way to bright, march-like music. Extra beats and elided ones deliciously subvert the tread that the trumpets want to establish. Actually, the trumpets are not so serious on this issue of steadiness. Characteristically, Stravinsky presents material that partakes of all the clichés of stability in the most mercurial way possible. Nothing, when it comes back, is ever quite the same.

However much Stravinsky leaned on Dushkin for help with the violin part, the orchestral sound and the whole idea of how to use solo and orchestra together is unmistakably Stravinsky’s own. The orchestra is not actually so very small, but the work sounds as though scored for brilliant chamber orchestra. There are very few bars for anything like the full band, and those that do occur mostly involve short chords for accent and punctuation. The violin soloist, moreover, finds himself constantly in the role of chamber musician, duet partner, and even accompanist. Stravinsky’s flair for making fresh presentations of the familiar is nowhere so evident in this concerto as in matters of color and texture.

The two arias in the middle of the concerto are in sharp contrast to each other as well as to the bright poppings and bubblings of the outer movements. Aria I begins with the passport chord plus three more chords of upbeat. The gesture leads here to music whose pulse is actually faster than that of the first movement. The spirit is that of sublimely elegant salon music, but the middle section surprises us by extending the idiom, embracing a gentle gravity. Aria II is the concerto’s slow movement, a latter‑day view of an expressively embellished Bach adagio. If the passport chord was a long and poignant sigh at the beginning of Aria II (though with a sharp cutting-edge), at the start of the finale the soloist touches the sound for no more than one fourth of a second. It is a springboard from which dazzling scales are launched, themselves leading to further amusements and delights, including the charming outrage of the concertmaster’s offer to compete with the soloist in fleetness and agility.

The Rite of Spring

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 Nikolai 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 25 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), Le Rossignol (The Nightingale, 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:

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.

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 pre-eminent place in the symphonic literature that it retains to this day.

Michael Steinberg (Agon and Violin Concerto) and James M. Keller (Le Sacre du printemps)

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.


More About the Music
Recordings: For Agon—Michael Tilson Thomas leading the London Symphony Orchestra (RCA Victor Red Seal)  |  Robert Craft conducting the Orchestra of Saint Luke’s (Naxos)

For the Violin Concerto—Isaac Stern, with Stravinsky conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (Sony)  |  Viktoria Mullova, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Philips)  |  Itzhak Perlman, with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)

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: 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

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)