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Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring: a guide to why The Rite of Spring was so revolutionary and its best recordings

We explore Stravinsky's ground-breaking ballet, The Rite of Spring, and why it has become so important in the history of music, as well as its best recordings

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When did Stravinsky compose the Rite of Spring and what was his inspiration?

Stravinsky had been pondering the ballet for quite some time before 1913. Several years before Stravinsky put pen to paper, the composer once recounted that he ‘had a fleeting vision … a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.’ Which is pretty much what the ballet itself is about.

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Who was The Rite of Spring written for?

The work was written for the Ballet Russes. The great impresario Sergei Diaghilev was on the hunt for fresh talent – his interest was in staging new Russian works to introduce to western audiences. The Rite of Spring was first performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on 29 May 1913 with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and costumes and staging by Nicholas Roerich.

How revolutionary was Stavinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring?

There’s no doubt that the music was hard-hitting for Paris’s bourgeoisie. Its complex rhythms and use of harsh dissonances would have been like nothing they would have heard before. There are frequent changes in time signature, creating a sense of instability. It’s restless, driven, energetic and often very dark. And all the while, the sound coming from the massive orchestra would have been quite overwhelming.

What caused the near riot during the first performance of The Rite of Spring?

And so, understandably, the reaction to the Rite was extraordinary. Although there wasn’t a riot as such, Stravinsky’s own recollections describe some very odd behaviour from the audience! ‘Mild protest against the music could be heard from the very beginning of the performance,’ the composer wrote. ‘Cries of “Ta guele (“shut up”) came from behind me.’ But among the catcalls were cries of ‘Genius! Genius’ from Ravel, while Debussy was trying in vain to calm everyone down.

If there is one moment in musical history that countless other music enthusiasts would love to be able to turn the clock back to attend, it would be that extraordinary evening at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.

Why was the Rite of Spring so divisive and ground-breaking?

Even without the rioting, the Rite of Spring premiere would have been a hugely significant moment in music history. Everything about Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes production was startlingly new to the ballet stage, including a backdrop and costumes that one contemporary critic described as ‘an absolutely violent feast for the eyes’ and, of course, Stravinsky’s music, with its aggressive rhythms of ritualistic chanting and foot-stamping, relentlessly, percussively beaten out by a vast orchestra under the baton of Pierre Monteux. But most controversial of all, perhaps, was Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography – clenched claws, knock knees, pointed toes and moves that were every bit as unintuitive for the dancers as they were strange for those watching them. For some in the audience, this was all too much to bear, but for others the Rite took both music and dance into exciting, daring new territory. When the two sides clashed, chaos ensued. So great was the noise from the audience that the dancers were said to be unable to hear the music and had to be directed by Nijinsky beating out the steps from the wings.

We named Stravinsky one of the greatest ballet composers ever

What is the best recording of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring?

To perform The Rite of Spring with any degree of conviction or accuracy demands total dedication. Of the many recordings available, most of the leading versions can claim at least that.

However, the score for The Rite is too eventful for any one record to capture everything that’s going on. To gain a pretty comprehensive understanding of what The Rite of Spring really does sound like, it’s worth trying one choice, living with it for sixth months or so and then having a change.

Junge Deutsche Philharmonie/Péter Eötvös
BMC CD1118

That top choice, at least for the moment, is the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie under Péter Ëotvös. Right from the expressive bassoon playing at the outset, this recording has imagination, it charts the various climaxes with energy but never a hint of vulgarity, and Ëotvös avoids what Stravinsky labelled self-glorification… his is the thoughtful, guiding approach of a genuinely creative mind.

Notice how he traces the architecture of the ‘Dance of the Earth’ that closes Part I, plus the dark ominous thumping of bassoons, timpani and basses in the passage immediately before it, as the sage blesses the earth – Ëotvös keeps the heat in while letting us hear virtually everything. There is also considerable sensitivity in the Pagan Night that opens Part II while, in the next episode where the young girls mark a circle where the glorified one will dance, the line is always kept mobile and fluid.

Above all, though, Ëotvös never lets us forget that The Rite of Spring is a ballet – but with a difference: this is dirty dancing.

Three more great recordings of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

Kirov Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Philips 468 0352

Valery Gergiev is the conductor to choose if it’s raw primitivism you’re after and blow the detail. There’s plenty of red mist, and at times you can almost smell the sweat and tribal greasepaint, but it’s also unkempt in places and not for all moods.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
EMI 749 6362

Conversely, go for Rattle if it’s detail you’re after and blow the raw primitivism. Very texture-sensitive and atmospheric, for sure, but occasionally also rather indulgent.

Philharmonia/Igor Markevitch
Testament SBT 1076

Even after almost 50 years, Igor Markevitch and the Philharmonia orchestra hit the spot, burning from the inside and sounding genuinely live. The downside, though, is the recorded sound which is showing its age just a little.

Read more reviews of the latest Stravinsky recordings here

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Find out more about Stravinsky and his works here