Though The Rite of Spring has become standard, a classic, since the 1970s, it remains overwhelming today, whether or not you’re familiar with it. Playing it in 1970 with the National Youth Orchestra, conducted by Boulez, was one of the great experiences of my life (see also here).
Never mind that it’s the kind of imagining of “pagan rites” that academically I would dispute—it’s a world away from the cultural pundits’ romanticised view of folk culture! (For a “pagan” ritual performer among the Cheremis, see here; and for the New Year rituals of Gaoluo in China, here.)
Among endless discussions, Tom Service gives a succinct introduction. Alex Ross (The rest is noise, p.57) nicely (sic) compares the “riot” at the 1913 première with the release of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK. The NYO website led me to Gertrude Stein’s curiously detailed account of the event:
We could hear nothing. One literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music.
As the site observes, this is hardly surprising, as she wasn’t actually there.
Supposing that she had lived long enough not to actually attend the premiere of The sound of music either, she might have said, “One literally could not hear the rite of spring.”
I’ve cited Richard Taruskin’s fine expression “lite Rite”—“Is nothing Sacred?”, as Keats and Chapman might say. In his stimulating article on Bartok and Stravinsky (The danger of music, pp.133–7; see also pp.421–4), he observes Bartok’s identification of The Rite’s “folk” elements that Stravinsky later disowned:
Even the origin of the rough-grained, brittle and jerky musical structure backed by ostinatos, which is so completely different from any structural proceeding of the past, may be sought in the short-breathed Russian peasant motives.
Alex Ross is also very much on The Rite’s case. In a crowded field (more crowded, for instance, than analysis and reception history of the suites of Yanggao shawm bands since the Ming dynasty—funny, that), his comments in The rest is noise are very fine, with vivid context in his chapter “Dance of the earth” (pp.80–129), citing Taruskin’s definitive 1996 book Stravinsky and the Russian traditions.
I take Taruskin’s point that the darker energies of The Rite have been “resisted, rejected, repressed”, but even in the most polished performance it’s both exhilarating and disturbing.
Swan Lake it ain’t. Remember, at the 1913 Paris premiere the ballet was just as shocking as the music. You can see a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s own choreography here, and the recreation (from 25.40) following this documentary gives an impression:
Pina Bausch’s version is amazing:
For an intense series of posts on the ballet, see here.
And here’s an attractive quandary:
Stravinsky once joked that the dauntingly high-register bassoon solo which opens the piece should be transposed up every year to stop players getting complacent about it. He wanted the effort to register.
But “it’s complicated”—see also here (and note the ritual wind instrument connection). I’m not sure about the dudka, but if it’s really related to the Armenian duduk, then there’s a link to the guanzi of north Chinese ritual bands! There’s a wealth of discussion of that opening solo in bassoon blogs.
Not only do concert-goers “share intimate and personal cultural moments with strangers”, but they have to keep still; the Rite is one of many pieces where this should be an impossible demand. And another where conducting without a score yields fruit:
If Stravinsky really said that Karajan’s version
sounded like someone driving through the jungle in a Mercedes with the windows up,
then good for him.
And then there’s the “original instrument” debate—the “lite Rite”, as Richard Taruskin called it:
This version for organ, far from silly, is just awe-inspiring:
A harpsichord rendition has also appeared on YouTube. Jazz tributes include the Bad Plus arrangement:
In her recent exploration of The Rite, Gillian Moore also observes:
My feelings of creeping feminist unease in writing a book on a ballet about the sacrifice of a young woman created by three men were at least partly relieved when I came across the Russian folk metal band Arkona and their frontwoman Masha Scream.
On a lighter note, here I imagine the Danse sacrale as a suitable riposte to the haka.
By the way, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, less revolutionary but no less captivating, must have suffered by its proximity.
Billie Holiday‘s 1957 TV appearance must be among the most moving videos ever, with Billie in rapture, showing the depth of the rapport between great musicians (for the making of the film, see here). Don’t miss the final trumpet solo from Roy Eldridge!
For my personal Billie Holiday playlist, see here. As to books on her, don’t get me started…
Apart from the experience of listening, jazz biographies are just as captivating as jazz photos. If only I could bring the Li family Daoists to life with such detail as we find in books like
- Ross Russell, Bird lives (for a fine review of three more books on Charlie Parker, interrogating the whole genre of jazz biographies, see here)
- Miles, The autobiography (see e.g. Miles meets Bird and Some middle-period Miles, as well as under Mahler, vibrato, jazz, and Daoism and The spiritual path of John Coltrane)
- David Brun-Lambert, Nina Simone: the biography
- J.C. Thomas, Coltrane: Chasing the trane
More academic, but (sic) masterly, is
- Paul Berliner, Thinking in Jazz.
In books like this, it’s not just the social and personal detail that impresses, but the technical aspects of their constant musical strivings—the musos’ obsession with chords, timbre, and so on. From Charlie Parker’s use of the Rico number five reed (Russell pp.10–13) to Keith Richards‘ sheer exhilaration at discovering the open five-string tuning (in Life p.270ff., no less captivating than the many gaudy experiences throughout the book).
We could compile lists of similar excursions in world music, but jazz leads the way…
While I’m about it, don’t forget
- George Melly, Owning up.
* * *
Conversely, Miles’s autobiography should be read in the voice of the Queen, Brian Sewell, Jacob Wee-Smug [aka The Haunted Pencil]—or (for yet older readers…) the presenter of Listen with Mother. If serialised on Radio 4, it could be called Listen with Motherfucker.