The Rite of Spring

One day in the summer of 2013, I was rehearsing a concerto with the Mariinsky Orchestra. When the maestro announced a 20-minute break, I thought I would be able to practice alone in peace, but all of the woodwind principles remained on stage. I found it remarkable that players of an orchestra that performs 200 days out of a year would use their break time to practice. When I listened in closely, however, I noticed they weren’t practicing the program for that evening. Every single member was caught up in practicing a particular piece to be played the day after.

It didn’t surprise me a bit. In 2013, everywhere I went, it was all about this piece. A month before, I had also played the piano duo version of this piece at Pyeongchang Music Festival. And for weeks afterwards, a peculiar  feeling of depression hit me, while the piece refused to leave my head.  Pianist Dasol Kim, who played the piece with me, told me that he also suffered from the same symptoms. It was almost the sensation that we offered ourselves as a sacrificial lamb. The piece that cast such a spell on us was a piece that celebrated its 100th anniversary of its premiere in 2013: Igor Stravinsky’s ballet music, the Rite of Spring.  

But wait…a 100th anniversary of a premiere? Are there pieces that celebrate such a thing? The field of music is accustomed to celebrating the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death and so on, showcasing the composers’ pieces year-round. But even famous pieces, such as Beethoven’s 5th or Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphonies, are not celebrated for their premieres.

That momentous day, 29 May 1913 in Theater of Champs Elysées is depicted in the film “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky.” The music begins, and after the dreary opening the curtain rises. Dancers, already on stage, start to dance, and the bizarre dancing unsettles the audience. The dissonant harmonies intensify, and as the music carries on the dancing increasingly resembles a violent bodily struggle. Jeers pour out of the audience, and a few elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen leave the theater. The noise coming from the audience soon becomes loud enough to cover the music, and it is then when the stage director decides to wield his cleverness—-he turns on all the lights in the audience section. This stuns people for a moment, but as soon as the lights go off again they become rioters again. Time for the police.

A TV movie from BBC, “Riot at the Rite,” describes this incident more vividly. The most striking line in this video is perhaps what the ballet producer Sergei Diaghilev says, as he tries to motivate his dancers right before the premiere: “you are about to make history…Remember, whatever happens, keep going.”

What provoked the audience to such extent? It was of course the story itself. A virgin maid is chosen to dance to her death and sacrificed as an offering in order to coax the pagan god of spring. Was this latent primitiveness the only thing that inflamed the sensibility of Parisians, who consider “elegant beauty” to be their best virtue? The ballet’s barbaric nature, which awakened the libido deeply seated in the civic conscience that was slowly surfacing at the turn of the century: perhaps the most human defense mechanism against this was to get a big scare and to cause chaos. On that day, the audience scorned the barbarism inherent in the sacrifice of an innocent virgin, but what they encountered in barely a year was nothing less than the 1st World War; helplessness of one individual’s fate against the ruthless mother nature came back to haunt them. Art, a creation of the times, ended up surpassing the times.

Ultimately, however, the real provocation was probably the music, which perfectly reigns over the story. The day before Dasol and I began rehearsing the piece, we were having dinner with the cellist Jian Wang, who initiated the conversation about it. “It’s an impossible piece. I can see why Karajan demanded the entire Sacrificial Dance to be rewritten in the 3/16 meter,” he said. When we started rehearsing the next day, we immediately understood his point. We wholeheartedly related to the anecdote that there needed to be over a hundred rehearsals, and the premiere delayed for a year as a result.

The problematic Sacrificial Dance opens with volatile meter changes; the first page sees a bar-to-bar change of 3/16 - 5/16 - 3/16 - 4/16, progressing further as 5-3-4, 3-3-5-4, 3-4-5-5-4 (in 16ths). If all of this is beyond anyone’s grasp, there is no need to worry. There is no pattern, which implies there is no need to try to comprehend. There are no regular beats, and the result is a kind of rhythmic imprisonment.

As soon as I tried to feel the rhythm when the music became familiar enough, I stumbled, and as soon as one of the rhythmic patterns I had learned and processed over twenty years happened to spring out of nowhere and I tried to entrust myself to it, I stumbled again. Could this actually be absolute freedom that can only come from absolute imprisonment?

As I was listening to several members of the Mariinsky each practicing his part in a complete disarray, I could not help but burst out laughing. This noise sounded not all that different from the entire woodwind section gathered in full force and playing in the first four pages of the actual piece.

Chaos in Mother Nature. The dormant violence is immediately realized in the second movement, “The Augurs of Spring—Dances of the Young Girls.” What is striking here is that the dissonant harmony that is repeated numerous times as a thunderous four-beat rhythm is actually an assembly of two perfectly harmonious chords: Dominant 7th of A-flat Major + F-flat Major (which actually doesn’t exist). Most of the dissonant chords found in the piece is the same. I can’t think of a better Russian sarcasm—-irrationality is conceived from rationality, and it transforms itself into a new kind of rationality. The era justifies itself, and justification owns the era: how brutal!

People may consider this piece a proper classic that can no longer be called modern, but it is meaningless to put a time stamp on a piece that returned to the ancient times at the dawn of a new century. For me, the biggest shock is that this piece has already turned 100 years old.

Yeoleum SON