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Stravinsky's Most Raging 'Rite Of Spring'

Russian-born US composer Igor Stravinsky in 1955.
AFP/Getty Images
Russian-born US composer Igor Stravinsky in 1955.

The Rite of Spring sparked the most famous riot in music history when it was premiered at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees on May 29, 1913. That's long been the stuff of performing-arts lore. But it says something for the Parisian listeners that they knew when to be shocked, because the ballet was calculated to do just that.

Never before had a symphonic work so thoroughly violated the conventional notion that meaning resided in an orderly relationship between melody, harmony and form. The Rite of Spring challenges the concept that music has its basis either in rational thought or in the higher emotions. The piece comes across as a visceral experience of the most elemental kind.

Folklore was one of the hottest fashions in pre-WWI art, especially in Russia, but while others were interested in it primarily for decorative purposes, Stravinsky tapped into the very essence of the primitive in The Rite of Spring.

Gergiev's Feral Force

What I think makes Valery Gergiev's recording with the Kirov Orchestra stand out is that it turns away from a tradition of trying to get the notes right and make the performance more technically accurate — and, in a sense, secure. Gergiev has an orchestra that can do that, but he turns back, trying to evoke some of the brutality that was designed to be part of the experience.

In the section called "Spring Rounds," there are glissando passages in the brass — that means that they slide from one note to another. They're written in the score, but they're usually played rather cleanly. Here, Gergiev asks his brass players to really emphasize the slide, so that these sounds become almost like gigantic moans. That ties in with an aspect of the piece that Stravinsky himself said was very important: He said that, while growing up in Russia, watching the spring arrive was like the earth cracking open and groaning. And here, in music, we hear exactly what I think Stravinsky was talking about.

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Ted Libbey