About this Recording
8.571223 - STRAVINSKY, I.: Sacre du printemps (Le) / Dumbarton Oaks (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
The Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps) Concerto in E flat: Dumbarton Oaks


Igor Stravinsky was the son of a distinguished bass soloist at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, who was a creator of important roles in new operas by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He was born, the third of four sons, at Oranienbaum on the Gulf of Finland in the summer of 1882. In childhood his ability in music did not seem exceptional, but he was able to study music privately with Rimsky-Korsakov, who became a particularly important influence after the death of the composer’s imperious father in 1902. He completed a degree in law in 1905, married in the following year and increasingly devoted himself to music. His first significant success came when the impresario Dyagilev, a distant relative on his mother’s side of the family, commissioned from him the ballet The Firebird, first performed in Paris in 1910. This was followed by the very Russian Petrushka in 1911 for the Dyagilev Ballets russes, with which he was now closely associated, leading in 1913 to the notorious first performance of The Rite of Spring, first staged, like the preceding ballets, in Paris. Although collaboration with Dyagilev was limited during the war, when Stravinsky lived principally in Switzerland, it was resumed with the ballet Pulcinella, based on music attributed to Pergolesi, and marking Stravinsky’s association with neo-classicism. The end of the association with Dyagilev was marked by what the impresario considered a macabre present, the Cocteau collaboration Oedipus Rex.

Stravinsky has been compared to his near contemporary Picasso, the painter who provided decor for Pulcinella and who through a long career was to show mastery of a number of contrasting styles. Stravinsky’s earlier music was essentially Russian in inspiration, followed by a style of composition derived largely from the eighteenth century, interspersed with musical excursions in other directions. His so-called neo-classicism coincided with the beginning of a career that was now international. The initial enthusiasm for the Russian revolution of 1917 that had led even Dyagilev to replace crown and sceptre in The Firebird with a red flag, was soon succeeded by distaste for the new regime and the decision not to return to Russia.

In 1939, with war imminent in Europe, Stravinsky moved to the United States, where he had already enjoyed considerable success. The death of his first wife allowed him to marry a woman with whom he had enjoyed a long earlier association and the couple settled in Hollywood, where the climate seemed congenial. Income from his compositions was at last safeguarded by his association with Boosey and Hawkes in 1945, the year of his naturalisation as an American citizen. The year 1951 saw the completion and first performance of the English opera The Rake’s Progress, based on Hogarth engravings with a libretto by WH Auden and Chester Kallman, a work that came at the final height of the composer’s neo-classicism. The last period of his life brought a change to serialism, the technique of composition developed by Arnold Schoenberg, a fellow-exile in California, with whom he had never chosen to associate. In 1962 he made a triumphant return to Russia for a series of concerts in celebration of his 80th birthday. Among his final compositions are the Requiem Canticles of 1965–6 which follow his Requiem Introitus for the death of the poet TS Eliot, but prefigure his own death, which took place in New York in April, 1971. He was buried in the cemetery on the island of San Michele in Venice, his grave near that of Dyagilev, whose percipience had launched his career sixty years before.

The Rite of Spring, with choreography by Nijinsky was first staged at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris in May, 1913. The work had already caused considerable trouble in Dyagilev’s ballet company. Nijinsky, the principal male dancer, in 1912 began to replace Fokin as choreographer, and with The Rite of Spring he tackled a formidable task, to provide a new kind of dance for a plot of primitive symbolism and energy, coupled with music of a very new kind. Stravinsky alleged a degree of musical incompetence in Nijinsky, who needed, he once claimed, to be taught the rudiments of the subject. Nevertheless the dancer was able to match the music with something equally original and startling. Neither music nor choreography proved in any way acceptable to the general public on the occasion of the first performance, although all had gone well enough in a preview before an invited audience of cognoscenti. At the first public performance there was an uproar, as members of the audience took sides for or against the piece. In spite of deafening and violent objections from many, the dancers and musicians continued to the end, although the music was inaudible. The result was, at least, a succès de scandale. In later years the music of the ballet was to exercise a strong influence over the course of twentieth-century music, although Nijinsky’s original choreography proved less durable.

Drawing on pagan Russia as its source of inspiration, The Rite of Spring opens with the Adoration of the Earth, the introduction to which is marked by the evocative bassoon solo with which it starts and finishes, leading without a break to the forceful rhythm of The Augurs of Spring: Dances of the Young Girls (Les augures printanières: Danses des adolescentes). The Ritual of Abduction (Jeu du rapt) follows, with two groups of girls, dressed in red, pursued in a simulated ritual of abduction, by the young men. The Spring Rounds (Rondes printanieres) are introduced by trills on flutes, with a simple Russian clarinet melody, the dancers moving in circles. Now the Ritual of the Rival Tribes begins (Jeux des cités rivales), interrupted by the Procession of the Sage (Cortège du sage), as the tribal elders lead in their wise old high priest. He lies prone on the ground, in adoration of the earth, after which the people celebrate with the Dance of the Earth (Danse de la terre).

The second part of The Rite of Spring is The Sacrifice (Le sacrifice). The mysterious Introduction evokes a twilight scene, desolate, and yet inhabited by strange and primitive creatures. A dark hill-top is marked by sacred stones and totems. From the Mystic Circles of Young Girls (Cercles mysterieux des adolescentes) one will be chosen as sacrificial victim, as they circle in rhythmic motion, watched by the tribal elders. Once the victim is chosen, lost in an ecstatic trance, her role is glorified in The Glorification of the Chosen One (Glorification de l’élue), a dance of fierce asymmetrical rhythms. Fanfares herald the Evocation of the Ancestors (Evocation des ancêtres), and the elders, wearing animal-skins, celebrate the Ritual Action of the Ancestors (Action rituelle des ancêtres), moving forward to the stark and exotic rhythms of the final Sacrificial Dance (Danse sacrale), as the victim joins in a ritual that must end in her own death.

In 1936 Stravinsky set out on concert tours of Europe and South America, moving, at the end of the year, to the United States, visiting New York and Hollywood and conducting the first performance of his newly commissioned ballet Jeu de cartes (Game of Cards) at the Metropolitan Opera. During his time in America he had also stayed at Dumbarton Oaks, the house of Mr and Mrs Robert Woods Bliss in the suburbs of Washington. It was for his hosts that Stravinsky wrote his Concerto in E flat for chamber orchestra, commissioned in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of their marriage. The new work, for which the Blisses paid a fee of $2500, was started during the summer of 1937 and the first movement was completed at the Château de Monthoux, near Annemasse, near enough to the sanatorium where his wife and daughters were under treatment for tuberculosis, a disease of which symptoms had been detected in him as he left America. The work (a Concerto grosso, of the dimensions, he had suggested, of a Brandenburg Concerto) was completed by the end of March 1938 and first given a private performance on 8 May under Nadia Boulanger, who had been involved in the negotiations with Mr and Mrs Bliss, the latter of whom now commissioned a symphony to mark the fiftieth season of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In Paris the concerto had less success, and Stravinsky was to complain of the growing opposition there to his music, now condemned in Germany, an additional factor in his decision to emigrate to America.

The new concerto was scored for flute, clarinet, bassoon, two French horns, three violins, three violas, two cellos and two double basses, an ensemble similar in numbers, at least, to that available to Bach in 1717 at Cothen. The first movement opens with a characteristically Baroque figure, a clear reference to Bach. There is a fugal section, introduced by the violas, followed in turn by the violins and then the cellos, to be developed further by the whole ensemble. The movement ends gently, with the strings, violins and violas now divided, providing a brief resolution. The second movement makes initial use of its opening figure, in rhythms that continue to be highly characteristic of the composer. The clarinet introduces a new element, over an ostinato accompaniment, soon followed by the flute and bassoon with a return of the opening figure. There is an extended flute solo, over a lightly scored accompaniment and a solemn chordal ending to the movement, which is joined, without a break, to the final Con moto, with its insistently repeated accompanying rhythms, syncopation and characteristically Stravinskyan textures.

Keith Anderson

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