Around Spring

by on Thursday, 24 February 2011 Comments

On a sacred hill, surrounded by a boundless plain, are placed a series of stones organized into concentric circles.  It is the spring equinox, and a number of tribes from the surrounds have gathered to this spot to mark the rising of the sun.

In celebration, they blow on dudki, wooden music pipes of differing sizes and as the sun rises towards its zenith, their enthusiasm grows, climaxing with cries of joy but also terror.  The sun having now reached its midday point, and with tribes assembled, rituals to begin.

An old crone bursts into view, doubled over, whirling in arrhythmical motions, dressed in the skins of the animal who is her ally.  The old shaman dances around the stones demonstrating the art of divination to a row of young men who follow, marching in strict time to the pulse of the ceremony as opposed to her chaotic motions.  The youths are students of augury, and as such must keep strict time whereas only the shaman moves to the unseen forces, apparently out of step.  The ritual games begin as men from alternate tribes holler and taunt each other, edging closer, daring each other, finally jumping into enemy territory in an attempt to carry off their neighbors’ wives.  The more wives a man can carry off, the better.  Young maidens with painted faces organize themselves into circular dances that always rotate to the left, emulating the movement of Yarilo himself across the sky.  They alternately clap and stamp their feet as the circles become spirals slowly expanding.  Now the young augurs, finished with divination practice, meet the maidens, and groups of friends coalesce, some allying, some separating into new, future tribes.  These new groups enact a ritual war, going through the motions of attacking their neighbors and defending their lands.  The intensity builds as the adults and youths, letting go of normal inhibitions, allow the spirit of the event to consume them.  It can only be performed at this time of year to please the reborn god who gazes from above but continues his slow traverse across the sky.

The elders appear and all stops; silence.  The oldest member of the tribes is brought forward, withered and with long flowing beard.  No one alive can remember this man ever having looked otherwise, seemingly always to have been the ancient one.  All are still as he slowly makes his way through the stone circles to the center spot.  Gradually lowering to his knees he prostrates himself flat against the plain. He kisses the earth and with that symbol, joy erupts.  In an upward rush of momentum, all join in circles and stamp out the dance of the earth.

The sun has set and now begins the secret part of the ceremony that is known only to women and performed by the young.  In the darkness maidens gather in Khorovods around the circular stones and begin what seems a childish game, alternating positions within the circle, trying not to remain trapped in the center.  As the game works itself out, fate marks one individual by twice denying her a position within the group.  Separated, she has been chosen by the god.  It is she, the elected, who will consecrate the new year and return to the earth the force that youth only temporarily borrows.  Having discovered the chosen one, they perform a last glorification dance while she stands petrified with a mixture of joy and apprehension.  Joy for being selected, but fear for where she must go.  As the dance gains in tempo, tears fill her eyes but there is no time to meditate for the elders of the tribes approach, all clad in the bear skins that signify man’s animal ancestors.  The games having finished, her innocent friends scatter, returning to their lives and the coming year.  The final ceremony now begins, to be witnessed by the elders and ultimately the god. Forming a circle around the elect, they begin a dance ritual, pushing the chosen one to whirl in increasing intensity as the dawn approaches.  She falters, exhausted, but cannot cease as each time a bear form rushes forward spurring her on. Again and again she dances with increasing energy, for as the light grows, the end is close.  The broad arms of Yarilo break across the horizon, running along the great plain, striking the hill and the dance continues with ever more energy.  Pushed to her last breath, the elected one flails and falters, having given everything.  Now the moment and the elders rush forward as if carrion to devour the remains.  Not letting her touch the ground, the group draws tightly in on itself and around the elect, for only the god can witness the deed.  He rises, and the group raises the finished sacrifice skywards.  Yarilo moves on.  The year is reborn.  The rite, complete.

The composer Igor Stravinsky was asked at various points of his life what the inspiration had been for his most famous work.  His last statement on the matter is that the idea came to him as a dream, or vision whilst finishing the orchestration of his ballet, 'The Firebird' for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes company.  He stated, "I had dreamed a scene of pagan ritual in which a chosen sacrificial virgin danced herself to death.  This vision was not accompanied by concrete musical ideas however."1 Dreams were obviously very important to Stravinsky and provided the starting points for several of his pieces, however they often weren't very specific.  He claimed that he dreamt in color and once described having had a vivid dream all in pink.  He was  keen however, to point out that the music always preceded the idea.  It would be from musical sounds usually, that an idea for a piece was born.  In this case though, it seems not so.  'The Firebird' was a ballet based on a straight telling of a Russian fairy tale, but the idea for this new ballet was more primal in nature and had more of a primitive feeling reaching back further than a fairy tale could into the depths of pagan Russia.  It would unfold as a single dance performed by a young girl in front of a group of elders.  She would dance herself to exhaustion as a willing sacrifice to the god of spring.

Premonition was important to Stravinsky, and with this he perhaps had not just a good idea for another ballet but a sense for a new type of drama.  'The Firebird' was a traditional ballet ‘choreodrama’, very much like an opera in execution.  Consisting of scenes from the fairytale, the choreography and music would submit to the needs of the story.  However, this new idea turned out to be a great turning point towards the types of dance works and music now considered modern, and away from narrative-based ballets of the past.  Anxious to follow his instinct, only two months later while Firebird was still in rehearsal, Stravinsky met with Nicolas Roerich, a painter, archeologist, and well respected expert on Russian folk ritual in order to develop this idea.  Together they developed a basic scenario, to be called, 'The Great Sacrifice’, and Stravinsky began to develop some musical ideas from it.  Meanwhile, Firebird was premiered in 1910 to great acclaim immediately propelling Stravinsky to international fame as a composer.  These events were all components of a rising star, the Ballets Russes.

Like Stravinsky, Serge Diaghilev, had initially studied composition with Rimsky Korsakoff in the St Petersburg Conservatory but had given it up in the 1890's after being told by his teacher that he had no talent for music.  He then became interested in Russian painting and helped to found the journal, ‘World of Art’.  In 1906 after having travelled widely searching for Russian art pieces, he held an exhibition in Paris which would set the stage for his future work as impresario.  This led to a series of concerts in 1907, including works by Russian composers such as Nikolai Rimsky Korsakoff and then a production of the opera, ‘Boris Godunov’ by Mussorgsky in 1908.  The Parisians invited him to return in 1909 with ballet as well as opera, and this was the beginning of what would become one of his most exciting ventures.

Diaghilev had a great talent for identifying and spotting artists of unique ability to work alongside.  He had employed Nicholas Roerich, who was already well known in Russia, to create the decor and costumes for the Polovtsian dance scene by Borodin in the opening program of the Ballets Russes.  As a painter, Roerich had visited Paris years before but purposely not incorporated European tendencies into his paintings.  He had already created and maintained his own distinct style based around the Russian landscapes and iconography that had so influenced him since his youth.  The backdrops he presented for this ballet scene were of barren desolate steppes dotted with the 'beehive shaped tents of the Polovtsi', as it was described.2 For the Parisian audience this was probably extremely exotic and unfamiliar to them, playing into the taste for oriental subject matter prevalent at the time.  The Paris opening of the Ballets Russes was an immediate sensation and led to the idea of bringing further Russian subject matter to Paris.  Diaghilev knew of the relatively unknown Stravinsky's first compositions in Russia and invited him to create a ballet, ‘The Firebird', for the 1910 season.  After the success of Firebird it was then natural that Stravinsky's focus was tuned towards Russian folk material and he became excited by a vision far more raw and primitive than the usual oriental fare.

It is entirely possible that Stravinsky's dream was only part of a larger, group intuition that had been taking hold in Russia for some time.  In 1908, a year before the opening of the Saison Russe in Paris, a new anthology of Russian literature appeared which sought to combine scholarly articles and research on Russian folklore with works from current poets and writers.  One writer, Alexander Blok, described a new modern disease of disconnection with the ancient past, proscribing art as one method through which people could reconnect to the 'oneness' or wholeness that primitive man experienced.  The artist of today should turn his gaze to the peasants and villages for inspiration.  There, were the last remnants of the ancient religion.  "Rituals, songs, khorovods, charms bring people close to nature, make them understand its nocturnal language, imitate its movements."3 This kind of nostalgia for a simpler existence could also be found in works by Tolstoy, for instance the contrasted lives between aristocrats and peasantry in ‘Anna Karenina’.

Very soon after this 1908 publication, Roerich wrote an essay entitled, 'Joy in Art'.  "Let us take one last look at a scene of Stone Age life." He goes on to describe in detail the lifestyle of his imagined ancient Russians and asks, "… don't they remind you of the houses of Japan, of India?"  Apparently alluding to the idea of an original culture from which all others spring.  He continues his description of ideal primitive life. "A holiday.  Let it be one with which the victory of the springtime sun was always celebrated.  When all went out into the woods for long stretches of time to admire the fragrance of the trees: when they made fragrant wreaths out of the early greenery, and adorned themselves with them.  When swift dances were danced, when all wished to please.  When horns and pipes of bone and wood were played.  … Amber pendants, stripes, stone beads, and white enamel talismans gleam and flash in the khorovod.  The people rejoiced.  Among them art was born.  They were near to us."4

After the 1909 premier of the Ballets Russes had stimulated the taste for Russian subject matter in Paris, it was clear that Diaghilev would try to repeat this success.  Roerich's sets in 1909 and Stravinsky's ballet of 1910 had both been well received and created international reputations each.  It was natural for Stravinsky to turn to Roerich for help with this new project.  Perhaps Stravinsky had read 'Joy in Art' previously, which had become a component of his ‘dream’.  But nowhere in Roerich's essay was a mention of sacrifice.  Another poem entitled, 'Yarilo’ by Gorodetsky, is a possible antecedent.  In it, a maiden is killed by a wizard carving a Yarilo idol from a sacred tree.  But again this type of source was imaginative and far from authentic; Stravinsky had in mind something truer. If possible, a "Stone Age Ballet".  A kind of spectacle never seen before.  Roerich immediately liked the subject after being approached and the two met several times afterwards to work out the scenario.  Meanwhile, and soon after the premier of Firebird, Diaghilev approached Stravinsky with the idea for a new ballet this time based on a story by Poe, but realized that he was already at work on a new project, and quickly drew it out of him.  Upon hearing the idea, Diaghilev was delighted and naturally commandeered it for his company.  The ballet began its life entitled, 'The Great Sacrifice', but then became known in Russian as 'Sacred Spring.'  However for Paris in 1913, it was premiered under the title, ‘Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)’, and was greeted with one of the most negative and explosive receptions of any performance in history.

Whereas Stravinsky was interested in the idea perhaps for its musical possibilities and as a way to shed the dramatic elements of ballet and focus on something more primal, Roerich was probably attracted to create something which coincided with a vision of what he thought was closer to the archeological truth.

To understand what Nicholas Roerich had in mind we need to look at some of his early influences.  He was the son of a distinguished barrister and grew up on an estate in the village of Iswara.  The estate included thousands of acres of forests, containing Viking burial grounds, which had lain undisturbed.  As a boy he spent much of his time hunting, but soon became fascinated with these tombs and began to excavate them in secret.  Inside, he discovered caches of bronze and iron swords, jewelry, and brooches, sparking his imagination.  Such experiences helped to push him at a young age towards a perusal of past legends and old myth.  An excellent student, he entered university officially to study law in the line of his father but managed at the same time to study at the Imperial Academy of Art with a landscape painter.  At the end of three years, Roerich completed his course at university but also won a diploma from the academy with a painting entitled, 'The Messenger', which was immediately deemed of interest and purchased by a gallery in Moscow devoted to contemporary art. This success at an early age encouraged him to continue painting and over the next five years he completed a whole series called the ‘Ancient Russia’ cycle.  In 1898 he was appointed a professor at the Imperial Archeological institute and asked to carry out excavations all around Russia.  This job allowed him to travel widely where he simultaneously made extensive sketches while carrying out important research.  In 1900, Roerich then travelled to Paris for a year to study and learn about the exciting French artists of the time.  Although very much in awe of Gauguin in particular, his style and imagination had already become fixated upon the material he studied as an academic, and he instead began to work on a large painting entitled, ‘Pagan Russia’.  Upon returning to Russia he made many more trips, this time with his wife Helena Ivanova whom he'd married in 1899.

Helena Ivanova had a strong interest in the teachings of Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophy movement having translated several of Blavatsky's books into Russian.   Like so many at this time, Roerich was attracted by these ideas and would later commence on the same sort of travels that Blavatsky had embarked upon in the 1870s.  Blavatsky made a trip to Bombay in 1879 and there received the 'wisdom' that a great brotherhood of Aryan Tibetan spiritual masters were secretly controlling the world and humanity's fate. She called this the ‘Secret Doctrine’, which, although obviously highly suspect was an immensely popular idea with esoteric groups right through the early 20th century.  There were many variations on the idea but the main threads generally taken seriously, stated that there was some kind of ancient source to all cultures and races, and that there was a secret land in Tibet known as Shambala, or Shangri La, the occupants of which, contained the answers.  The ancient knowledge that the West had lost would be found once again. For Roerich, having spent twenty years concerned with excavating ancient Russia, the idea of some sort of authentic primitive source for all cultures was likely very attractive and became a focus for him in his later life and travels.

In 1910 he became president of the World of Art forum, the same that Diaghilev had helped to found years ago, and at this point, working with Stravinsky on the Rite of Spring provided a way to try to combine his creative force as a painter with his research and imagination about what pagan Russian practices may have actually consisted of.  Stravinsky and Roerich were intent to try to create as authentic an experience as possible and in order to do this they had to draw material from what was known of Slavic mythology at the time.  This was difficult, as the entry of Christianity in the 10th century had largely wiped out or transformed many of the ancient practices.  Part of Roerich's work as archeologist and anthropologist was to try to discover and reconstruct what those rituals may have been.

The god to whom the rite was to be dedicated was Yarilo.  Roerich had found that in the games and festivals of rural areas, traces of the pagan practices could still be observed.   The festivals generally celebrated a cycle of transformation throughout the seasons.  They were Kolyada, the festival of winter; Semik, of spring and Kupala, of summer.  In the winter, Yarilo was known as Yarovit and has been equated to the roman god of war, Mars.  In spring, Yarilo appeared as a young man.  ‘Yaru’ meaning young, ardent, bright, and rash.  He would appear barefoot and clad all in white robes, crowned with a wreath of white flowers.  Because he was said to be a dying and resurrected God, during Kupala, Yarilo would die and in some lands an effigy would be made during the holiday to be torn up and discarded at the end.  In the games of the first part of the scenario depicted by Roerich and Stravinsky, the men taunt each other, trying to abduct each other’s wives.  This came from idea of the youth and sexuality of Yarilo and was based on real happenings observed in villages.  However, there is very little mention or evidence for human sacrifice within slavic myth and at this time, descriptions of real sacrificial rites would have been hard to come by.  Aztec practices had been detailed in ‘The Golden Bough’ by Frazer, but it is doubtful if Stravinsky had encountered that.  He would likely have been familiar with Herodotus's description of the Scythes who would strangle their king's concubines to be buried alongside.  Looking at festivals even today, there are relics to be seen.  For instance in the festival of Maslenitsa, where a full sized effigy made of straw, named Lady Maslenitsa is sometimes ritually burned while people ecstatically leap through the flames.  Maslenitsa has long been a Christian festival occurring before Lent that evolved from the Pagan Spring festival before.  At the end of the festival on a Sunday, she is placed in a bonfire and the ashes are then buried in the frozen fields, that they may bless the spring and rejuvenate the crops.

Another element that Roerich included was the entrance of the old shaman at the beginning of the work.  He imagined her as an old women wearing a cap made from a squirrel and practicing divination in the way that Siberian shamans were known to do.  This is again an element, which shows the attempt to achieve a kind of authenticity behind the ballet.  Usually in Russian fairytales shamans are known as witches or wizards and almost always of an evil nature.  Think of the endless tales of Baba Yaga in her house on chicken feet or in the poem Yarilo, by Gorodetsky, an evil wizard who hacks the maiden to death with an axe in order to fashion an idol.  This, in a way reflects the demonization of certain elements of the older religions which Christianity supplanted.  And yet in areas of Siberia, Roerich, on his travels may have seen villages where Siberian shamanism was still very much alive.  Indeed, it was said that for some in these regions, there were two religions existing side by side with cases where people didn't really understand who, actually was represented on the cross.  The depiction of the old woman as a Siberian style shaman rather than a satanic witch marked a difference in this drama, and may have contributed to the ultimate shock value, for there is nothing truly evil depicted in ‘The Rite of Spring’.  It is a ritual of energy and rebirth that proposes a sacrifice as a necessary and logical outcome.  Even today as archeologists have unearthed so much new information about sacrificial practices, these customs have the power to deeply unnerve and upset our conception of civilization, and are generally avoided as subjects to be utilized in the popular sphere.  The idea of kings in India, who would ritually cut themselves into pieces at the appointed moment, quite willingly, are hard to grasp.  Or of course the Aztec sacrifices upon the pyramids.  The practice of eating ones enemies or even family members accused of witchcraft in New Guinea.  Part of the initial shock of the Rite of Spring may have come from one of the first public presentations of these very disturbing visions to an audience completely unaccustomed.  There was a great difference in presenting a ballet of colorful, exotic polovtsian dancers, as opposed to an energetic joyous ritual culminating in the sacrifice of what appears to be a weeping girl.

And then there was the inclusion of khorovods.  Usually translated as 'round dance', this is a simplification.  Khorovods often contained elements of pagan rituals.  They could be performed with various movements utilizing one circle or multiple.  There could be an inside ring and one outside, or spiral formations for instance.  Sometimes individuals would stand and sing or dance solos while the group circled around.  There could be clapping or foot stamping and rituals depicting the courtship between young men and woman.

For all the detail that Roerich was putting into his scenario and costumes, it would be a mistake to think that for Stravinsky it was anything other than an exciting new form of dance theatre, which would give an opportunity to compose music he was dreaming of maybe independently of the ideas.  As he often said, ideas existed only to serve music.  Stravinsky later related an amusing story that while working on the music for Le Sacre du Printemps, Diaghilev invited him to a performance in Bayreuth of Wagner's ‘Parsifal’.  Having never seen it before and grabbing the opportunity to go to the opera house and setting created especially for it, Stravinsky accepted, but then regretted. "The performance I saw there would not tempt me today, even if I were offered the room gratis.  The very atmosphere of the theatre, its design and its setting, seemed lugubrious.  It was like a crematorium… The order to devote oneself to contemplation was given by a blast of trumpets."  Compare that to the gentle but startling opening of Sacre!  Completely the opposite.  He continues, " I sat humble and motionless, but at the end of a quarter of an hour I could bear no more.  My limbs were numb and I had to change position.  Crack!  Now I had done it!  My chair had made a noise which drew down on me the furious scowls of a hundred pairs of eyes.  Once more I withdrew into myself, but could only think of one thing, and that was the end of the act which would put an end to my martyrdom."

Anyone who finds themselves mystified by the Wagner ritual that is Parsifal, can probably attest to feelings of this sort.  However the premier of Sacre couldn't have been more opposite.  The thumping rhythms of the orchestra were drowned out by the booing, arguing and physical fights that the performance seemed to generate.  About Parsifal Stravinsky continued, "At this date it is too removed from me.  What I find revolting in the whole affair is the underlying conception which dictated it, the principle of putting a work of art on the same level as the sacred and symbolic ritual which constitutes a religious service.  And indeed, is not all this comedy of Bayreuth, with its ridiculous formalities, simply an unconscious aping of a religious rite?"5

Roerich on the other hand, adored the music of Wagner and probably responded deeply to the ritual of it.  It seems that contradictory elements can sometimes generate great happenings.  After the death of Diaghilev in 1929, Roerich wrote that one of his great talents was the ‘synthesis’ of artists with diverse sensibilities resulting in astonishing creations.

For the opening of ‘The Great Sacrifice’, Nicholas Roerich imagined the sun rising to a symphony of dudki.  Like the dawn chorus of birds this would blur the difference between primitive man and the natural world.  The dudki were wooden pipe instruments and would have had very high but distinct sounds.  In order to achieve this effect, Stravinsky opened the piece by placing a bassoon in a register much higher than it is accustomed to playing.  Even though the piece started off quietly with this ethereal sound, the effect was at once unique and part of a whole group of radical orchestrations that Stravinsky would bring to this work.  Placing the bassoon in its top register is a most unusual sound and creates a timbre that gives the impression of archaic, rougher sounding pipes.  For the bassoonist this would have been most difficult to control the sound but that’s of course part of the intention.  Legend has it, that apparently in one of the first performances, the composer Camille Saint-Saens walked out proclaiming that one does not write for instruments in this manner.

Stravinsky's talent and dexterity with orchestration must have come in large part from his studies with Rimsky Korsakoff.  Stravinsky had met Rimsky as a young man in Heidelberg while vacationing with his parents.  Stravinsky’s father was a well known opera singer but had decided that the best course for Igor was for him to enter the profession of law.  As a young man Stravinsky had grown up with the customary piano lessons but showed a very free attitude towards the piano.  He would later describe how he began to improvise before receiving any formal composition training.  According to him, the improvisations weren't that good but it was a great way to learn how to get around a piano.  This way of working also formed his attitude towards sound and Stravinsky would say that as a composer he always preferred to directly improvise at the keyboard in the initial stages.  Some composers prefer to work melodies out in their heads but the element of surprise that comes from the tactile connection with sound when improvising, appealed and helped to form a sensibility and perhaps direct his originality.  Debussy would be the greatest influence on Stravinsky as a young man and it was precisely this composer who had broken out of the traditional sound world through basing pieces on original and unusual improvised harmonies.  Allying himself to this way of composing, Stravinsky was very keen to point out later that with Sacre, he relied only on his ear to guide him.  No studied theory would yield what he was after, and every aspect had to be tested and weighed first at the piano.  Perhaps something of the shocking effect of this music comes from this way of working where one is bound to head towards uncharted realms in matters of orchestration and harmony.  Stravinsky was one never to reveal his sources preferring instead to retain the mystery of conception.  However, there are influences that can be seen.

Stravinsky had written a few pieces and had the opportunity to show them to his teacher at their first meeting.   Rimsky Korsakoff was not very enthusiastic however.  He asked Stravinsky senior what career the boy had chosen (or had chosen for him), and allegedly proclaimed that it was all very well but he should maybe take lessons on the side with one of Rimsky's pupils.  But Rimsky did not think the St. Petersburg Conservatory was the right place for Igor to be.  Whether that was because he sensed an original talent or was simply against the conservatory in general is a matter of conjecture.  What Rimsky certainly saw was that Stravinsky needed some firm grounding in musical form and analysis.  After his father passed away, Stravinsky then came into closer contact with Rimsky having decided to pursue his true interests. In the private lessons, Stravinsky describes how he would be set assignments to orchestrate waltzes by Schubert, or sonata movements of Beethoven.  He would then bring these pieces to Rimsky who would make the required corrections.  Primarily the focus was on orchestration and he would spend time copying out the master's scores.  Stravinsky then went on to write a symphony, songs, and several piano pieces, which still had relatively traditional sound in terms of the musical ideas.  It would only be with the Rite of Spring, that as he stated later on, every element was worked out afresh. It was an explosion of creativity and many of the techniques that he discovered are still used today to great effect.  As a young man Stravinsky had become unusually adept and natural with the handling of an orchestra, which for many composers comes later in their careers.  After hearing "The Firebird', Debussy complimented in his typically understated way, "Well , one has to start somewhere." It was quite a start.

Hearing Debussy's fireworks music had been a great revelation but also the ballet, ‘Daphnis et Chloe’, by Ravel.  Upon hearing, Stravinsky would declare this work a masterpiece of French music.  It is interesting to listen to the orgiastic pirate's dance of Daphnis in light of Sacre.  Perhaps it could be said that all the elements contained in embryo here are massively expanded upon in Sacre.  Polytonality, Irregular rhythms, discordant clusters, percussiveness, all feature.  Unusual in Sacre, though, was the abundant use of traditional folk melodies for the thematic material.  Using these created a backdrop of primitive feeling behind the composition which perfectly matched Roerich's intentions in designing the costumes and libretto.  Stravinsky only admitted to using one folk song at the beginning but we now know many of the other sources.  Most of the songs used are ceremonial and it is certain that Roerich would have known that the songs associated with certain festivals had pagan roots going back further than Christianity.  But its possible that Stravinsky had already absorbed this from his teacher, who wrote, "The whole cycle of ceremonial songs and games to this very day rests on the ancient pagan sun-worship which lives unconsciously in the people."6 Rimsky Korsakoff had also used ceremonial songs in one of his operas.   But it is possible that Roerich may have been the one who pointed Stravinsky to an anthology of over a thousand Lithuanian songs from which many have now been identified inside Sacre, however what is always interesting is how Stravinsky sets and transforms them.  Often the songs would be traditional khorovods, to a simple dance rhythm, but he would set them against irregular beats, thereby changing the whole feeling.  By manipulating the instrumentation or by sometimes subtly altering the notes of a melody, the character of the song could become unique.  In one example he changed the notes from the original tune to emphasize the larger fourth and fifth intervals avoiding the more normal thirds that we are used to hearing.  The effect is to keep the melody recognizable but make it feel far more ancient and raw.   Stravinsky was constantly searching for ways to recast this old folk material, afresh.

01_costume_rite_springAfter having spent three years, from the conception of the idea to the writing of the music, 'Le Sacre du Printemps' was ready to go into production in 1913 for the Ballets Russes.  Diaghilev was keen to push a young dancer at the time, Vaslav Nijinsky, to trying his hand at choreography.  Stravinsky has famously made many disparaging comments about him when recounting the rehearsals, citing the young ‘boy’s’ complete lack of understanding with regard to basic musical knowledge.  Nijinsky would fire back that all he wanted to know was the grand conception, and all Stravinsky wanted to talk about were the black dots on the page.  Stravinsky felt he had to explain such basic rhythmic ideas to Nijinsky as the counting of a musical score.  But he may have been downplaying the significant challenges to choreography that this piece posed.  The rhythms were so irregular that special counting patterns were the only way to keep the dancers on track with the orchestra.  Nijinsky at the time received help from a student of the Dalcroze school of movement and this led to them trying out some very unorthodox dance positions. In keeping with the rest of the work, gone were the normal ballet routines.  One dancer, has said that Nijinsky forced them to dance with their feet turned inwards and flatfooted.  Sometimes they would leap in a strange position and land so that "… you could feel your bones shake."  Nothing remains of what the original choreography was but it has been argued that this, more than the music or decor is what caused the famous riot at the premier.

All the various forces of Modernism had been rising to create a bang in 1913, and that was the reaction to this ballet in the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris.  The first half of the program had consisted of a rather traditional piece called, 'Les Sylphides", with the dancers pirouetting to the pleasant chords of Chopin; a much more expected type of ballet.  In the second half it was the Rite, to be premiered.  From the first bassoon call there began to be catcalls and booing from the audience, clearly displeased with the harsh and dissonant sound of the music.  Others, who really wanted to listen to the introduction began arguing with the troublemakers to quiet down, but as the curtains opened and the rhythmic pounding of the harsh dissonant chords began, unorthodox circular dance movements proved to be too much for some.  The yelling and disturbances in the auditorium rose to become so loud that you couldn’t hear the music anyway.  Nijinsky began to count loudly from a box by the stage so that the dancers could keep to the beat and stay on track, with Stravinsky behind him hanging on to his coat tails so he wouldn't fall over the side.  The arguments soon progressed to fist fights between people who genuinely wanted to see the work and those who found it totally unacceptable. Diaghilev fled backstage and tried frantically to flash the lights on and off to get people to calm down and eventually the police had to be called at intermission to quell what had become a riot.  In the second half, some audience members reacted with shock as the dancer playing the sacrificial victim seemed to freeze in the middle of the stage (this was planned of course), too terrified to move as if she'd forgotten her part.  The image of a dancer frozen and seeming to cry as she was to be sacrificed was too much and people started loudly questioning if she needed medical attention. Stravinsky left in anger, finding the reaction of the audience despicable.  “Oddly enough, at the dress rehearsal, to which we had, as usual, invited a number of actors, painters, musicians, writers, and the most cultured representatives of society, everything had gone off peacefully, and I was very far from expecting such an outburst.”7

The Rite continued for another 6 performances and wouldn't be put on again until its revival in the 1920s where it was accompanied by a far more abstract dance performance stripped of the original choreography.  But that initial premiere has gone down in history as having had one of the most violent reactions to a modern piece.  Roerich later observed that it was as if the essence of the ballet had somehow awoken the primitive nature of the mob.  The musical effect of the work has had a slower, but no less potent transforming power on modern culture.  By now generations of composers have poured over the sounds of Sacre, and traces of it can be heard everywhere from the concert hall to modern films.  Disney’s ‘Fantasia’, notably marked its entrance into the popular sphere, although Stravinsky having given his blessing, did not really approve of the treatment, commentating on the rather infantile conception applied to his music.  Stravinsky's style had anyway changed in the years afterwards as he moved on from this kind of music, but as his remarks about Parsifal reveal, he wasn't overly keen on too hallowed an approach to music making, but then neither was he pleased with the violent energy unleashed by his own rite. Something in between these extremes was what he searched for in later years.

For Nicholas Roerich, his search for the true origins of the Slavs would continue and after his years of working for theatre he resumed archeological pursuits, embarking on a series of travels around Asia, notably to Tibet in search of Shangri La, open to the possibility that it may exist.  At the end of his life he would leave almost 7000 paintings.  His wanderings never ceased and he died in the Himalayan valley of Kullu, where his ashes are now buried on the slopes of the mountains he explored. A beautiful story relates that on one these journeys through Tibet, Roerich was astonished to find very recognizable stone circles.  Here lay symbols so important to the ancient Slavs, but in Tibet. “The same design is known to us from the graves of the northern Caucasus. Before me are Tibetan swords, exactly like those in the Gothic tombs. The women of the same district wear the head-dress, like the head-dress of the Slavonic peoples, the so-called Kofoshni.” Was this yet more evidence of the original people who'd migrated west to become the Slavs?  Ultimately it is the search more than the conclusions that provide the ultimate joy.  As he explained, “We cannot give statements of finality because each finality is a conclusion, and conclusions mean death.  When in one’s hand you hold one end of an enchanted cord at Carnac, is it not a joy to find its beginning in the Trans-Himalayas?”8

Here the motivations for Stravinsky and Roerich were similar.  Although their paths crisscrossed for just an instant to synthesize this rite, Stravinsky’s enchanted cord would lead him away from spring and Russia towards the far removed and abstract ballet, ‘Agon’ in America.  Each new work, a pearl added to the ‘string of searching’9.  This is true Joy in Art.


  1. Stravinsky and Craft. Expositions and Developments. London, I962, p. 140.
  2. Buckle. Diaghilev, p. 142.
  3. Blok.  Poeziya zagovorov zaklinaniy, p. 38.  Translation excerpt from Taruskin.  Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions Volume 1, p. 850.
  4. Roerich.  Radost’ Iskusstvu, p. 531-32.  Translation excerpt from Taruskin.  Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions Volume 1, p. 861.
  5. Stravinsky.  An Autobiography.  Norton Library, 1962, p. 38.
  6. Rimsky Korsakoff.  My Musical Life, p. 207-08.  Translation excerpt from Taruskin.  Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions Volume 1, p. 893
  7. Stravinsky.  An Autobiography.  Norton Library, 1962, p. 47.
  8. Roerich.  Shambhala, Subterranean Dwellers, Tangoo 1928.  Translation provided by Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York.
  9. Roerich.  Shambhala, Subterranean Dwellers, Tangoo 1928.  Translation provided by Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York.
Lorenzo Goehr

Lorenzo was born in 1977 in Cambridge. Trained as a classical pianist, he is also a composer and a writer. He travels often between England and Taiwan to participate in projects with local musicians and artists, notably with a traditional puppet troupe.


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