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“The Rite of Spring” and Story Research

When I was still delivering newspapers (er, okay, fliers) for pocket money, I discovered Stravinsky’s masterpiece, Le Sacre de Printemps, known in English as The Rite of Spring. I immediately found the music somehow bizarrely familiar and comfortable, despite its dissonance, its extremity, the unnatural use of the instruments, and so on.

This is hardly surprising, of course: anyone who watches a lot of film knows how influential this ballet by Stravinsky has proven to be on the work of film score composers, and some of what Stravinsky did even entered the common language of orchestral music afterwards.

The premiere of the piece is, of course, infamous for the riot that it provoked. One of the more popularly quoted comments on the events that took place was by Thomas Kelly, who observed that “The pagans on-stage made pagans of the audience.”

While many rather romantically have implied or claimed that it was the radical nature of the music that provoked the riot, some of the catcalls from the audience suggest that Nijinsky’s choreography cannot be held blameless. Last night, watching a performance of it, I was struck again by the brutality of the choreography. It’s as if Nijinsky was bent on doing to the dancers what Stravinsky did to the orchestra: twisting them into unnatural postures, jamming them through body-shocking routines, as if to get at something so primal that it could shatter the delicacy and exquisiteness of ballet as it was then understood into bloody, broken shards and fragments.

I mean, we’re talking about a ballet about annual springtimes pagan ritual sacrifice of virgins to the Earth somewhere in the Russian wilds. If they were marketing it today, the tagline would be something like: “Who Needs Swans When You Have Ritual Human Sacrifice?” And this is one of the most significant pieces of orchestral music in the 20th century, folks. Makes those heavy metal bands from my childhood whose leaders supposedly bit the heads off rats onstage look positively tame by comparison.

This is subjective, of course, but I can’t think of anything comparatively interesting that has happened since in any field of music (with the exception of jazz and electroacoustic music; most of the stuff people think of as radical looks to me like conformists trying their hardest to color outside the lines of the coloring book, where Stravinsky basically took the coloring book and set it on fire, using it as the kindling to start the bonfire that would burn down the museum in which music history was housed.

Even now, when the brash strangeness of Le Sacre on stage isn’t so much alienating as just bizarre and maybe a bit cute — it could never provoke a riot today, though that’s partly because basically nobody gives as much of a shit about ballet as people used to — the work retains something of its power, something of its audacious, surprising, and unbelievable character. I haven’t yet managed to see it live, though I would love the opportunity. (I’ve never heard of a performance in time to actually see it anywhere I’ve lived.) I’m sure the centenary of the premiere, in 2013, will be a good time to get a chance to see it, though.

Until, there are at least recordings:

And yeah, I’m working on a fictional short story about the premiere, and the musical score, and Nijinsky’s choreography. And, you know, modernist-art/occult-conspiracy counterfactual history.

There are interesting parallels between this piece of Stravinsky’s and Pound’s The Cantos, the long-poem I’ve been blogging about every Tuesday for a month now, as I work my way through the book. The theme of a return to the pre-Christian, pagan world of the ancients (Greeks in Pound’s case, Russians in Stravinsky’s); the radical dismemberment of an artistic form into a collage technique depending on borrowed fragments (one Pound wore as a badge of honor, while Stravinsky actively concealed the fact that Le Sacre and other works involved extensive quotation of Russian folk melodies); the life of the artist as long-term expatriate (Stravinsky to Switzerland and France, and then America). Their shared inhabitation of Paris in the 1920s, also, is tantalizing .

It’s tempting to imagine their paths crossing in Paris in 1920, or perhaps during a jaunt to the south of France sometime after, since Stravinsky had moved there in 1921 and Pound, devotee of the Occitan troubadours, would certainly have had reason (fictional occult ones, or otherwise) to travel there. But for the story I’m working on now, it’s Stravinsky in Paris in 1913 that concerns me. If a letter from Ezra to Igor turns up, or perhaps from Igor to Ezra, then fine, but I’m concerned with the questions that could proceed from Kelly’s observation: if “The pagans on-stage made pagans of the audience,” how and why exactly did it happen?

While the real answer is surely mundane — people gave a shit about ballet then, and were pretty fixed in their expectations — it’s fun to think there was something more to it. Some hidden power in those Russian folk melodies — the hedge magic of Russian peasants — and something Nijinsky knew about the human mind when exposed to joints bent so that “the angles are all wrong…” 

If you’d like to hear more about the premiere, this NPR program has some interviews with Tom Kelly (the fellow quoted above on the premiere) and performances of some of Stravinsky’s work. The introduction rightly compares this musical event with the invention of the airplane, Darwin’s proposal of the theory of evolution by natural selection, and the Copernican theory — in the way it transformed our understanding of music. There are interviews with Stravinsky included, though be warned: he was a big self-mythologizer.

Oh, and Pound and Stravinsky were buried in the same place (San Michele Cemetery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, Italy). That’s something I discovered just now. Funny how stuff like that happens.

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