The rake’s progress


Stravinsky’s opera The rake’s progress (1951, with libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallmann, is loosely inspired by a series of paintings by William Hogarth.

I got to know the opera in 1979 through playing it in the pit with Riccardo Chailly and the London Sinfonietta in Milan for La Scala, with sets by David Hockney. With performances only every couple of days, it made a wonderful three-week holiday, giving me my first opportunity to explore Milan and the nearby towns of north Italy (Cremona, Brescia, Bergamo, Verona, and so on), long before our 1990s’ tours of Mozart operas in Parma and Ferrara (for more Italian inspirations, see here). “But that’s not important right now“.

Rake 1979

As ever, Richard Taruskin‘s perspectives on Stravinsky’s opera are stimulating (The danger of music, pp.109–17). It also gives me another pretext to admire the wonderful Barbara Hannigan—here she is in concert, singing, and conducting, Anne’s aria from Act 1:

To follow Susan MccLary’s incisive comments on the astounding use of the harpsichord in Brandenburg 5, I admire its sinister use in the Act 3 graveyard scene.

See also Stravinsky tag.


William Hogarth, In the madhouse.


Taco taco taco burrito


Wondering how to get to grips with additive metres?
Awed by the complexities of flamenco palmas?
Despair not, help is at hand!

As a prelude to aksak “limping” metres, we might start with quintuple metres, which go far back, even in WAM. By the baroque period there are niche examples by composers such as Schmelzer, and they feature in 19th-century Russian music—a most popular instance being the “limping waltz” of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony (2+3) (which, like the 2nd movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (for which see also here and here), is a kaleidoscopic WAM subversion of the waltz, before Ravel‘s disturbing vision).

Quintuplets, of course, are something else altogether; as are the creative use of additive rhythms in minimalism (see also examples from Reich and Meredith).

From Tchaikovsky we might graduate to

  • the Pearl and Dean theme (which we may hear as two groups each of 3+3+2; or for a Bulgarian, perhaps two fast groups of 3+3+3+3+2+2)
  • Un homme et une femme (after the three upbeats, 3+3+2+2: the first two 3s, in the original “Dabadabada, badabadaba”, were later remembered as “Chabadabada“, a word that entered the language to denote alternating male and female candidates in electoral lists!)
  • and Lalo Schifrin’s theme to Mission impossible (5/4, with a duplet over the first 2 beats).

If you can hum along to such easy examples, then that’s a good start in mastering the intricacies of so-called aksak metres around east Europe and the Middle East…

Indeed, Take five was inspired by hearing Turkish musicians. Rather more challenging is the opening section of Blue Rondo à la Turk (2+2+2+3):

Note the helpful BTL comment there (only without the punctuation!):

Taco, taco, taco, burrito. Taco, taco, taco, burrito. Taco, taco, taco, burrito.
[SJ: not to be confused with potato, potato]

Still, that’s a rather crude, mechanical usage, the melody merely marking out the metre in regular quavers—whereas further east, melodic rhythms are infinitely varied within the basic metre.

Admittedly, the additive patterns of the Rite of spring have been transcribed in 4/4—was it really Boulez who had this drôle idea?! Cf. Slonimsky‘s help for Koussevitzky, here). Indeed, the scores for both the Pearl and Dean and Un homme et une femme tunes were written in duple metres.

And Max Richter’s welcome recomposition of the Four Seasons mixes in some great limping 7/8 bars (2+2+3—just the two tacos before the burrito today, thanks waiter) (from 1.14):

An intriguing instance is I say a little prayer, with its quirky insertion of a triple-time bar in the chorus—which no-one apparently even has to think about.

* * *

But all this is mere child’s play compared to folk music. Though such metres are quite widespread, Bartók, Brailiou et al. coined the term “Bulgarian rhythm”.


Some instances of “Bulgarian rhythm”, found here.

See also here.

A classic essay is

  • Constantin Brăiloiu, “Aksak rhythm” (in Brăiloiu, Problems of ethnomusicology, 133–67, based on a 1951 lecture),

which contains far more detailed schemata. His work followed that of

  • Bela Bartók, “The so-called Bulgarian rhythm” (1938).

A transcription by Bartók of a Turkish zurna–davul shawm band shows how, over the basic metre, melodic and percussion rhythms seriously thicken the plot:

aksak 2

The whole repertoire of players like Ivo Papazov is based on aksak metres:

I don’t think I’m quite ready for Sedi donka (Plovdivsko horo), a 25-beat pattern divided

    7             7                 11
3+2+2 | 3+2+2  | 2+2+3+2+2

For more on the diverse musical cultures of Bulgaria and environs, see here. And for a wide-ranging discussion, see

  • John Blacking, “Irregular rhythms: movement, dance, music, and ritual”, ch.3 of A common-sense view of all music (1987).

Back with Merrie England, there’s a fascinating article:

* * *

Further east, an example from the muqam of the beleaguered Uyghurs of Xinjiang is sadly topical (see this useful site). A common metre consists of one long beat divided into two equal stresses, followed by two regular beats—which we might notate cumbersomely as


with the initial duplet over a notional 3/8 unit:

Some sections add another duple unit, like this dastan from Chebiyat muqam (actually a duplet over 3/8,  followed by 3/4):


And some muqam have still more metrically complex segments to explore.

As with many world genres, the Uyghurs have no tradition of notation, and seem to have no terminology for such metres (though see Rachel Harris’s chapter in Harris and Stokes (eds.), Theory and Practice in the Music of the Islamic World). As with flamenco, this kind of thing is only an issue for those (like me) hampered by a visual classical education. The trick is to internalize it in the body—and to dispense with notation. Let’s remember that much of this music accompanies dance.

Uyghur musical traditions are part of a rich culture that is currently being systematically erased in Xinjiang.




All in a chord is a stimulating series of short programmes on BBC Radio 3:

including the horrifying Scream from Mahler’s 10th symphony (above); The Rite of Spring; and an exploration of the minimalist style through Terry Riley’s In C. Making connections between them, Ivan Hewitt and his discussants provide fine social context, to boot—”harmony as a reflection of history”.

Meanwhile, most of the world’s societies have always got along perfectly well without harmony. “But that’s not important right now“.

I’ve always understood harmonic language more by instinct and experience than by theory. I trust plenty of other orchestral musos are more erudite about chords and harmony, but it is jazzers who are most deeply imbued in the language—and not just the keyboard players.

NYO Prom: The Rite

47 years after playing The Rite of Spring with the National Youth Orchestra (“Yeah, I KNOW…”), I just heard them doing it at the Proms. You can find the TV broadcast here for the next 30 days.

Like the NYO’s other Proms in recent years (TurangalîlaMahler 9; cf. here), there’s something special for the audience in experiencing young performers relishing challenging modern masterpieces, sizzling with energy and commitment. The Rite may have become more of a repertoire piece than it was even in 1970, but it never fails to amaze. Even if I missed Boulez—who relished the sensuality as well as the violence of the piece (“Not A Lot of People Know That”—I grew up with his Mahler and Ravel too).

(The complete BBC4 broadcast includes a feature before The Rite with lovely paeans to the band from some of the great conductors who have worked with them, including Boulez and Rattle—the latter himself an alumnus. Our 1970 Rite with Boulez wasn’t at the Proms, but our 1971 Prom with him included more Gran visits York (sorry, I mean Igor Stravinsky), as well as Bartok, Berg, Webern, and Debussy. Wow, how awesome is that—as we hadn’t yet learned to say...)

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 recently 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 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 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. The ballet, of course, is even more unsettling—you can see a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s own choreography here.

Swan Lake it ain’t.

The Proms: more Ravel

I always admire Esa-Pekka Salonen in concert—and not merely because of the fine story (about his interview for the LA Phil) that I love to relay, illustrating establishment mindsets in both WAM and Daoist studies.


And I can never resist a live performance of Ravel’s Shéhérazade. At the Prom yesterday it was just magical. The venue itself creates a remarkable intimacy—the special communication between performers and Prommers, rapt attention, unique silences. Marianne Crebassa’s singing was exquisite: embodying Ravel’s intimate parlando style, she was always a vehicle for the nuance and drama of the text, deftly avoiding the diva trap. And Salonen conducts with suitably detached clarity. (For L’indifférent, see also here.)

Reluctant as I was to break the spell, John Adams’s grand Naïve and sentimental music eventually won me over.

Hot on the heels of my implausible link from Bach to Stravinsky, the concert began with a more convincing one, Stravinsky’s Variations on Vom himmel hoch. Reading Richard Taruskin as I am just now, I was more in the mood for it than usual.

Bach and Stravinsky

Useless musicological sleuthing of the day…

I like to think that I discovered this—on tour in Spain with the Sixteen, early 1990s:

The numinous opening bassoon solo of The Rite of Spring, rather than deriving from a folk melody on the elusive dudka, may instead be borrowed ingeniously from the Matthew Passion, 1st violin part in the 2nd orchestra (no.43, not long before Erbarme Dich):


with Stravinsky varying Bach’s pitch and rhythms to his taste. Amidst the fray of the crowd scene, investing the phrase with inexplicable care, I always chuckle to myself, “Not a lot of people know that…” [Weirdo—Ed.].