Saturday, May 26, 2012

Igor's Boogie: The Rites of Stravinsky

It should come as no surprise that if any one composer could cause a riot, it would be Igor Stravinsky. Unpredictable in nature, and comparable in stature to painter Pablo Picasso, Stravinsky was an enigmatic figure who moved like a chameleon through the cultural world. He made his reputation with his erotically charged masterpieces The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). Throughout these works, you could hear Stravinsky gradually forsaking the world of romanticism which would lead him to ultimately forge a new style of neoclassicism in 1920 with Pulcinella. Yet right at the moment when he was pioneering that phase of his musical career, he joined forces with his serialist adversaries, Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg, who had abandoned classicism altogether. "People always expect the wrong thing of me," Stravinsky once said. "They think they have pinned me down and then all of a sudden – au revoir!"

Born in St. Petersberg in 1882, Stravinsky had such a great aptitude for music that the colourful Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov took him on as a pupil. In 1909, Russia's top impresario, Serge Diaghilev, heard two of Stravinsky's first compositions, Scherzo fantastique and Feu d'artifice, at a concert in St. Petersberg. He was so impressed that he commissioned Stravinsky to write a couple of numbers for a ballet he was producing. Out of that encounter came The Firebird which was an overnight success. While not as daring or innovative as his later ballet scores, The Firebird still had something more foreboding than the exotic colours of Rimsky-Korsakov. Diaghilev could hear immediately that Stravinsky's work had what author Joan Peyser in To Boulez and Beyond called "a latent barbarism." This "latent barbarism" would, of course, be even more explicit in his next work for Diaghlev titled Petrushka. This piece, with its polytonality and sharper rhythms, caused something of a small commotion.

Petrushka, the story of a puppet who is bestowed with life, premiered in 1911, with the legendary dancer Nijinsky in the title role. At the time, Nijinsky was revolutionizing ballet in much the same way that Stravinsky was revolutionizing music. They both were taking the formal decorum out of their respective art forms and releasing the inherent primal impulses in their pieces. The ballet featured parodic elements, repetitive rhythms, and passages where Stravinsky echoed the mechanical and soulless world in which Petrushka found himself. (For those with a keen ear, American composer Frank Zappa, who was influenced significantly by Stravinsky, once wrote a hilarious pop satire called "Status Back Baby." In the song, a young football star fears he's losing his status at his high school so he looks for affirmation from his peers by painting posters and joining De Molay. In the bridge of the song, Zappa plays a guitar solo that quotes the opening melody of Petrushka, driving the point home that if Stravinsky's ballet score is about a puppet that longs to be human, Zappa reverses the process by writing a song about a human who longs to be a puppet.) The composer also illuminated the dual elements in Petrushka's character – both his mechanical and human sides. "I had conceived the music in two keys in the second tableau as Petrushka's insult to the public," Stravinsky remarked. "I wanted the dialogue for trumpets in two keys at the end to show that his ghost is still insulting the public."

Northwest Ballet's performance of Petrushka

Though Petrushka caused some commotion, it was nothing compared to his next score, The Rite of Spring. This startling new piece was a culmination of what Stravinsky was working toward in The Firebird and Petrushka. "One day, when I was finishing the last pages of The Firebird in St. Petersburg, I had a fleeting vision," he recalled. "I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring." The score called for the largest orchestra Stravinsky had ever assembled (and with plenty of percussion). This was no romantic rendering of the genial spirit within nature, or the renewing elements of the seasons; The Rite of Spring was about the scourge of dehumanization. Russian and Hungarian folk tunes were integrated into the score, but even if the themes were familiar to the ear, the instruments played them in unfamiliar registers. Stravinsky had the time signatures change rapidly after each bar. The bassoon sounded like it had a bad cold. Arpeggios blurted from woodwinds. Meanwhile, the pizzicato of the first violins set the pace, with running sequences filled with squawks, trills, and shrieks. The music prodded with an erotic force.

On the night of the famous premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 29, 1913, Stravinsky could sense trouble in the audience right from the opening notes. It was an audience that historian and author Modris Eksteins describes in his book, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (1989), as one "to be scandalized, of course, but equally to scandalize. The brouhaha...was to be as much in audience reactions to their fellows as in the work itself. The dancers on-stage must have wondered at times who was performing and who was in the audience." Stravinsky recalled the first stirrings of dissension: "I heard Florent Schmitt shout, 'Taisez-vous garces du seizieme'; the 'garces' of the 16th arrondissement were, of course, the most elegant ladies in Paris. The uproar continued, however, and a few minutes later I left the hall in a rage; I was sitting on the right near the orchestra and I remember slamming the door. I have never been that angry." The piece was also called "monstrous," a "massacre," and the choreography compared to "epileptic seizures."

Stravinsky & Nijinsky

These seizures and massacres, which represented the violence of both birth and death, were prescient warnings of what lay ahead, too. The Rite of Spring laid waste to the idealized past and opened the door to the modernist sensibility to come with James Joyce lurking around the corner. As choreographer, Nijinsky demanded a physicality from the dancers that was brutal and harsh and where the rhythms were complex. The conventions of beauty were undermined and the serenity of those conventions were rendered obsolete. The Rite of Spring broke through all quaint considerations of beauty into something newly evolved and startling in its depictions of nature's uncompromising power. Within the piece, you could hear the primitive forces that anticipated the savagery of the World Wars, which would kill millions; the brutality of the Russian Revolution, which would turn the world upside down and force Stravinsky from his homeland; the Holocaust; the carnage of famines; and the inflamed passions of nationalism that would unleash massacres around the world after the fall of communism.

Katsushika Hokusai's The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife (1814)

It's likely no small irony that Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring would over time gain acceptance, but the composer would continue to experiment and challenge musical conventions. (He would never again, though, incite another riot.) Stravinsky broke with the Russian orchestral school during World War I and started working with smaller ensembles. He settled in Paris after the Russian Revolution in 1917 and composed his first foray into neoclassicism with Pulcinella before ultimately turning to the United States after the death of his wife and child from tuberculosis. While he would in his late career emulate the beautifully sparse serialism of Webern, The Rite of Spring would become a continuous leit-motif into the waking dreams and nightmares of movies. Composer John Williams in his score for Steven Spielberg's Jaws would comically make the link to The Rite of Spring attributing one of the ballet's themes (duh-duh-duh-duh duh-duh) to the shark who was the movie's force of nature. As Anais Nin reveals her piquant discovery of lithographic copies of Katsushika Hokusai's erotic woodblock prints (The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife) to a publisher in the opening moments of Philip Kaufman's Henry and June (1990), the faint melody of the opening notes of Spring can be heard as if it had been stored with the lithographs in the Pandora's box that Nin opens. Since Henry and June was the first film to earn an NC-17 rating, replacing the X-rating often assigned to pornography, Stravinsky's daring score continued to have its finger on the pulse of the culture. With all its barbaric beauty, The Rite of Spring can also still give the finger to the tired tropes of proper decorum as well.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.                               

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