looking ahead in 1913

On Tuesday night I saw the Philadelphia Orchestra perform one of the all-time greatest symphonies ever composed -- Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

It'a hard to blog about something that has to be heard to be appreciated. Anyway, we've all heard bits and pieces of it, as it's been used in countless soundtracks, and anticipated countless others. The shower stabbing music in Psycho, the theme song from Jaws, and other similarly imitative music -- all finds origin in the Rite of Spring.

At the time (1913) it caused quite a shock, even rioting broke out. I guess the blatant Paganism ("The pagans on-stage made pagans of the audience") and Nijinsky's manic dancing must have been something for a largely monarchical world still steeped in stodgy traditions.

Philadelphia's conductor Christoph Eschenbach did a splendid job. I sat in row three, so I could watch the interaction between him and the musicians in ways I normally can't. Conductors are supposed to stay ahead of the actual music you hear, and being up close like that really gives the full sense of that lag. It would not be easy to stay ahead of what you're hearing, and I can't imagine how much time it must take to learn how to do that for every instrument in the orchestra.

Of course, the Rite of Spring seemed to anticipate World War I, which came a year later, when the tension between the old and the modern finally exploded.

Whether this tension was settled, though, is debatable. The Rite of Spring is "traditional" now, but I think it's still ahead of its time.

posted by Eric on 09.27.07 at 08:42 PM


I'm not sure if it is ahead or behind, but performed in September, the Rite of Spring is certainly out of synch with its time.

triticale   ·  September 27, 2007 9:09 PM

Ah, technically The Rite of Spring is ballet music, not a symphony. I don't think it actually has a form -- just disjointed sections that end abruptly. Little melodic motives, pounding rhythms, primitive screeches - a kind of montage of broken Romanticism.
Kind of like Tchykowsky on acid.

Frank   ·  September 28, 2007 12:23 AM

Actually, in my training as a conductor, it's become obvious to me that it's really just a (bad) habit that orchestras are behind or conductors ahead. It's just something that ensembles got used to, and now it's a convention. Orchestras can be right with a conductor if they choose to (or if the conductor has the temerity to insist on it).

John S.   ·  September 28, 2007 1:09 AM

What Frank and John S. said.

It was originally a ballet score and works toward a different end than an symphony. Whether it was the music or Nijinsky's choreography that caused the riot is still being debated.

Conductors I've worked with have tended to be 'on the music', not ahead of it. They also don't care very much about individual instruments unless that instrument is doing something like a solo or carrying a particular thread. Or, of course, is doing something wrong. The cattle are just supposed to do what they're supposed to do.

John Burgess   ·  September 28, 2007 10:40 AM

The ascending tones at the crisis are one of my key arguments in favor of existentialism. This from a self-described pragmatic realist.

I grew up on Eugene Ormandy and his love of Shostakovich. One of my dad's favorites was the Carmina Burana. If Ormandy had had Bernstein's deft touch before the television camera I think we would have a much different appreciation of the classics today. Hmm?

The French were of course scandalized! As previous commenters have noted, what is this? A ballet? or a symphony?

OregonGuy   ·  September 28, 2007 11:49 PM

My background is that I have a BA in music, and was working toward my Masters when the VietNam war intervened.
Essentially, Stravinsky was a late Romantic who broke with the conventions of western tonal music, but not to the point of Schoenberg. At the point he composed The Rite of Spring, he was probably at his wits end trying to compose original new and interesting music in the old medium.
I view this piece as his attempt at revolt against the sickening sentimentality of the late Romantics. He was of course in the period of others, the Impressionists like Debussy and Ravel, who have been likened to avant guard anti-Romantics.
But he is in another league totally.
The Impressionists just muddied tonal music.
Stravinsky enhanced it by bringing in raw primitive and sexual emotions. (Ravel tried.)
As Oregon Guy commented, Carl Orff followed Stravinsky in outlandish hyper-Romanticism.
In my own view, Orff's music is Nietzscheian, if not outright Nazi.

Romanticism ended with both a whimper and a scream -- Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky.

Today we're left with Cage's minimalist Haiku crap, second rate movie composers like Copeland, and others not worth mentioning.

Frank   ·  September 29, 2007 3:03 PM

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