I settle down at my desk with a pencil and music score in hand. Today’s ‘analysis’ will be on Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring - a ballet, though the music tells enough of a story that there’s no need for dancers. The piece itself is very strange, for he took a lot of influence from folk music, which created many strange harmonies and melodies. It was actually obtuse enough that there was rioting at the first performance. Still, it ended up being one of the most influential pieces of twentieth century music.
The introduction of the first part is straightforward enough. Yes, there are weird rhythms and inconsistent placements of the beat and outright oddities, but it’s mostly readable. I can make sense of it, at least.
But further in - well, who thought these monster chords were a good idea? Too many notes; a wonder that it sounds good when played. Then there are the regular tempo changes - fast, a sudden slow, then fast, presto, tranquil, an inconsistent beat, and all with more notes in a measure than there should be. I know the piece by heart, and yet, the score makes less and less sense until I start to think that it must have been a miracle that people were able to play it. I can’t even imagine what the original ballet was that went with it - probably as over-complicated as the rest of the piece is. With the apparent rioting, it must have been even more of a miracle that the performers were able to get to the end of it.
I still want to make sense of this piece - but there’s nothing to make sense of. It’s just another beautiful piece of music with no apparent rhyme or reason.
♪ ♪ ♪
I open my eyes to see that I’m at a theatre. Of course I’d be dreaming about music.
But I’m aware that I’m dreaming - a lucid dream? No - all of my reality checks are telling me that I’m still in real life. I couldn’t have magicked myself into a theatre. As nice as that would be, that just doesn’t happen.
And people are talking in a language that’s not English - but I understand it. And I appear to be a guy.
Okay then. Voices in my head? Hallucination. Fun times.
Sorry, who is this?
Nobody Owens , I think back. And you are?
Igor Stravinsky , replies that voice with a faint air of superiority.
Right, then. I must be absolutely delusional - to be hallucinating myself into some dead dude’s head. Of course it had to be the dude who wrote the piece of music I was just reading. Why couldn’t it be Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, or any of the other composers I actually liked? Not that there was anything wrong with Stravinsky, mind you - there were composers I’d much rather meet. So where are you? Or when? Some point of reference, please?
Well, Owens, it’s 29 March 1913, and we’re at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Might I ask the same questions of you?
- 1913. There’s something about that -
It’s the first performance of Le Sacre du printemps, isn’t it? And, well, I don’t really know what’s going on right now - for me, that is. I think that I must be hallucinating, or something. That’s the only logical explanation for me to be having this conversation with someone who’s been long dead. No offense.
Well, then we’re hallucinating together. You’re from the future, I take it? Care to tell me anything?
I mentally sigh. I’ll put it this way - you aren’t going to like what happens immediately during the performance. But, on the other hand, this piece of yours - along with your other pieces - are some of the most influential pieces from the 20th century. They’re still in modern repertoire - at least, they are in 2019. In fact, before all this happened, I was reading the score for Le Sacre du printemps.
Good to know that I’m still important over a century later. But you weren’t here during this performance, so maybe you’ve heard an exaggerated version of things. I know there will be problems with the audience. I’m expecting it!
So what do you think of the piece?
Er, well, to tell the truth -
- You don’t like it.
No, it’s not that. I like the piece plenty well - well, most of it, anyway. There’s a few things that don’t sit well with me. And I just don’t understand it. You’ve put together monster chords and strange sounds and things that don’t make sense. And yet it all ends up sounding quite brilliant. Honestly, I don’t think you understand the monster that you’ve created.
He - I - lean back in the seat. Well, I based this all off of folk music. I took interesting things and put them together. There isn’t much to be said of my creative process. That’s how music composition is.
But your implementation is new. Like I said, this is a very influential piece in my time - even though it is still considered strange.
Satisfy my curiosity, then. How influential is it?
It’s - well - it’s hard to explain. You know well enough that this piece is a bit of a departure from normal tonality and rhythms and almost everything that’s considered normal for traditional and modern music at this time. In my opinion, what you’ve done with this piece is introduce new ideas that are still relevant over a century later. And yet there’s still nothing else that I know of that sounds anything like this.
You’re confusing me. I take it that you aren’t well versed in music.
Sadly, I’m not very familiar with anything after the nineteenth century. I just know Le Sacre du printemps, and that it’s astoundingly unique and still relevant in my time.
♪ ♪ ♪
The bassoon starts playing, and it’s honestly one of the best things I’ve ever heard. This is the first time I’ve gotten to hear it in person. And yet, people are already whispering amongst themselves. They can’t identify the instrument, it sounds strange, this is alien. They’re fools. I’m inclined to agree - it’s a bassoon solo, obviously.
Then again, if my memory is correct, this bassoon solo has been written higher than any other composer had dared to go up until this point. That would explain why the audience couldn’t immediately recognize it. The upper range doesn’t really sound like any instrument in particular; you’d only recognize it if you’d have heard it before. And they hadn’t.
They’re being a little rude, yes, but I expected this much. Innovation always causes problems, he says, putting a stop to my train of thought. He, apparently, has an ego.
Then the curtain opens on “knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down” - and oh does the chaos begin. The mutterings have escalated into talking loudly, shouting insults, and all around disrespectfulness.
It’s mildly defensible. These are ballerinas - some very well known - who are dancing in a very primitive fashion. Gone is the gracefulness and fluidness typically associated with them; there are only jerky, rough movements in this performance.
But as the performance continues, so does the noise-making disruptiveness. I can hardly hear the performance at this rate - all the noisy shouting is beginning to give me a headache. The audience has effectively ruined the performance for anybody who wanted to enjoy it.
Yet the performance doesn’t stop. The music keeps going, and by some miracle, the ballerinas are still in time. I’m beginning to think that everybody must have known what was going to happen - or maybe they’ve rehearsed so much that they know everything by heart and that there’s no uncertainty. The show must go on, or so they say.
People are arguing now. There are arguments and some fistfights between all these elitists - those who favor traditional music, and those who would rather defend the originality of modern music.
I can feel Stravinsky growing angrier as the audience gets rowdier. I almost want to say ‘I told you so’, but no. This is his masterpiece, and this entire audience of rich people is disrespecting it.
Most of them probably never even gave it a chance. I had read somewhere that part of the rioting had been pre-planned. Quite frankly, the predetermined chaos of the audience only amplified the genuinely horrified reactions of others.
By the time the first part is done, he’s about to jump out of his seat and yell at the audience. They’re fools! They’re sitting here, disrespecting all of the members of the orchestra, ballerinas, and for no reason. Nobody here is going to have genuine thoughts on the piece - they can’t even hear it. He pauses. Surely in your time people found the perpetrator of this chaos.
No. Partially yes - some people’s disgusted reactions to this are no doubt genuine, because of how strange this piece is compared to everything else - but really, no. And there’s really no excuse for this. They wanted - in my opinion - to ruin one of the best pieces of modern music at this time. If any of them can actually justify their behavior, I’ll be shocked.
He’s placated by my response - but only briefly. There’s too much of a ruckus in the audience. He runs backstage, wanting to intervene, do something to make this performance come out all right, but there’s nothing that he can do. At this point, cues have had to be shouted at performers - which explains how they’re just barely able to keep up with the performance. The only thing he can do now is wait for this nightmare to end.
♪ ♪ ♪
After most of the crowd has left the theatre, he storms out. But not out a side exit - no, he goes out front doors to make sure that everybody who was in the audience and is still around can hear what he’s about to say.
“Go to hell!” he shouts.