The Rite of Spring

My Introduction to ‘The Rite of Spring’

I heard The Rite of Spring for the first time when I was 15 years old, perhaps one of the most important events of my life. It was a recording conducted by Stravinsky himself, and I vividly remember the vinyl artwork: it was a picture from him with his two glasses above the other: one on his forehead, and one in his hear, so you could see also his eyes. I had read before in his memoires that it was a habit he had inherited from Rimsky Korsakow, but the image of it was still quite striking. The recording was an LP that I rented from the local library with my pocketmoney and that I purchased when they sold their old LP’s a few years later.

With the meager pennies I had, I purchased fairly quickly also the score. It was the first score of importance that I had in my collection and it was also one that forced me to learn to read in different keys, to learn transposition, to assimilate rhytmical problems and not to mention harmonic analysis, form analysis, counterpoint and voice leading. I have actually learned everything from this piece! Later, when I ended up as an 18-year old in the Antwerp Conservatoire, all these subjects were child’s play for me.

After that first encounter with The Rite of SpringI was almost ‘possessed’ and listened to all the versions I could find at the time: with von Karajan, Bernstein, Svetlanov, Ansermet, Boulez, .. and many others. The differences were striking and in my eyes sometimes unacceptable. Stravinsky himself wrote an article in which he compared three versions with each other. By doing that, he gave a prime example how a music criticism should look like, first a series of clear details with reference to the measure number in the score, and then a synthesis of the general feeling of the performance.

The many recordings

Stravinsky made a reduction – no transcription – for piano four hands. He probably did this to make ballet rehearsals possible. In my ‘Stravinsky period’, I tried to distill a concert version for one pianist, but that seems almost impossible. Anyhow, it gave me the pleasure to play The Rite of Spring on my own, more or less.

In 1979 I performed for the first time the four hands version with Sylvia Traey. It was a success, even Sylvia’s father, Mr. Traey (who was the Head of the Music Department) found it excellent – and he was usually extremely critical. We made a vinyl record which was later released on CD. I also made a TV recording with Sylvia some time later. Afterwards I would make three more recordings of this mythical work.

Early 90s, I became conductor of the Symphonic Youth Orchestra of Flanders. With the help of a few enthusiastic orchestra members I put together an incredible orchestra of young musicians and we recorded The Rite of Spring and performed it several times. I conducted from memory and still remember the question from one of the musicians (oboist Bram Nolf) on one of the last rehearsals, “and what happens when the conductor makes a mistake?” I just answered: “the conductor will not be mistaken”.

The most memorable performance though, for me, took place in deSingel, Antwerp, where I explained in detail the construction, form, tonality, and other aspects such as orchestration and rhythm in the first part of the concert. With examples at the piano as well as examples by the orchestra, sometimes divided into sections, and even with assignments to the audience, dividing them into different groups. The second part of the concert consisted of the concert performance of The Rite of Spring with illustrations by Cedric Murrath violinist.

Later I performed and recorded “The Rite of Spring” with pianist Daniel Blumenthal in the four hands piano version again. My last recording was again as a conductor with the Philharmonic Youth Orchestra of Flanders. And so I’ve recorded it five times.

A spectacular thunderbolt – or not?

The Rite of Spring is without any doubt a bolt from the blue in European cultural life. Although I think we need to relativate this somehow to. There were huge new trends going on that ultimately had more impact on the evolution of music, but were less spectacular in their outcome at the time.

To give an example: Petroushka, the first truly personal work of Stravinsky (and in my personal opinion also his best), is mainly based on the consonance of two chords, namely C maj and its tritone Fis maj. Stravinsky thought at the time that this was his own original discovery, but it is clear that Charles Ives, and especially Debussy, had already experimented with this. The Rite of Spring goes one step further and superpositions two chords which are only a semitone apart. Actually also this you can find already in Debussy’s work.

Of course, The Rite of Spring has a rough and attractive force, which none of the other experimental compositions of his colleagues had. The originality of the Sacre is, at least for me, especially present in the last part, the Danse sacrale. The rhythmic innovation has lost none of its power and strength, even after 100 years!

It has become clear now for me that the second part of The Rite of Spring is definitely stronger than the first, and that the whole composition rather has a mythical force than just a pure musical force. The Rite of Spring is also an end and no beginning. Stravinsky has never repeated this in his work, that is just not possible.

What Le Sacre means for me personally is huge and somewhat difficult to summarize. For sure it has been the starting point of a long journey of discovery through the musical repertoire of the Western world. And it also has been a shock, a realization that I would become a musician. Two elements that have been of enormous importance for me personally. On the other hand, my pure compositional appreciation is not so adoring any more for this work. I now think that Stravinsky has made a lot more interesting compositions, such as Petrouchka, the Violin Concerto, the Symphony in Three Movements, the Symphony in C, the Symphony of Psalms and many others.

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