Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Igor Stravinsky is widely acknowledged as one of the most significant and pioneering composers of the twentieth century. He was born into a very musical family in St Petersburg, Russia. His father was a successful opera singer, and Stravinsky studied piano from a young age. A visit to see ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ when he was 8 years old sparked an interest in ballet which would have a huge influence on his career. Stravinsky initially studied law at university, but didn’t have any real interest in becoming a lawyer – he hardly ever attended his lectures! Instead, he spent his time studying music, learning with some of the most influential Russian composers at the time.
In 1909, Stravinsky met Serge Diaghilev, who had just started his own ballet company, the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev was very impressed with Stravinsky’s work, and invited him to compose the music for the company’s new production, ‘The Firebird.’ When the ballet premiered, audiences loved the music and Stravinsky became an overnight sensation. This was soon followed with another collaboration between Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes, this time on a production called ‘Petrushka.’ However, it was Stravinsky’s third composition for the Ballets Russes, ‘The Rite of Spring,’ that really made his name.
In 1917 there was a revolution in Russia, and lots of people left to go to other countries to seek safety. Stravinsky went to Paris, France, where he continued to compose music which was very popular with French audiences. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Stravinsky moved countries once again, this time to California in the USA. He continued to compose for and conduct orchestras right into his old age. However, none of his music has remained in the public imagination in quite the same way as ‘The Rite of Spring,’ which continues to amaze audiences to this day.
The Rite of Spring (1913)
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is one of the most notorious pieces of orchestral music ever written, because it caused a riot at its first performance in 1913! Some in the audience loved it, some hated it, and they made their feelings known whilst the piece was being performed.
Today, it is played by orchestras all over the world – it’s really exciting music and audiences are eager to hear it. So, what was all the fuss about more than 100 years ago?
After Stravinsky’s first two ballets, which were based on Russian folk tales, he developed a much more unusual idea for his next work. This ballet, The Rite of Spring, wouldn’t be about spring as we might understand it – flowers blooming and lambs jumping around in the fields. It would take place in humanity’s distant past, and deal with tribes who worshipped pagan gods and who might even use human sacrifice!
So, the plan was to create music and dance which wasn’t like anything heard or seen before. No one had ever thought of creating music about these times before – it would combine notes in new ways, use irregular rhythms, and employ the orchestral instruments in ways which had not been explored before. To match the music, the choreography rejected traditional ballet steps and gestures, instead using foot-stamping and ugly shapes.
All this might make the music sound daunting but in fact it’s very exciting, transporting the listener to a completely different place! A lot of the musical ideas from the piece have now found their way into film music, so when you listen some of it might sound a little bit familiar.
Here’s an outline of the piece to guide you through it.
The piece is in 2 parts:
- Part 1: Adoration of the Earth
- Part 2: The Sacrifice
Part 1: Adoration of the Earth
This music sets the scene – what kind of landscape do you think it describes? To me, it sounds like it’s a primeval swamp with lots of creatures chirping and honking in it. What do you think? When it was first performed, the audience heard the solo at the beginning and couldn’t work out what instrument was making that sound – no one had ever heard a bassoon playing such high notes! (To learn more about the bassoon, take a look at the OrchMap.)
Augurs of Spring (3:38)
This piece starts with the strings playing very percussively – they savagely repeat the same chord over and over again (3:38). In lots of music from this era the orchestra plays big, beautiful melodies – for Stravinsky to ask them to play like this was unheard of!
Over the top of the strings’ repeated chords, the other instruments add lots of tunes and motifs, which are short simple phrases. Even though Stravinsky was writing a really new piece, these motifs and tunes are actually based on traditional folk melodies.
Ritual of Abduction (6:58)
The pace quickens here with lots of fast notes and some very irregular rhythmic patterns. There’s also some calls from the horn which sound like an alarm! Listen to 7:53-8:12. The music keeps changing – how would you dance to this?
Spring Rounds (8:15)
This starts off more quietly, but has a massive, loud climax in the middle.
Ritual of the Rival Tribes (11:41)
Listen carefully, and you’ll hear different sections of the orchestra (the ‘rival tribes’) calling back and forth to each other. The percussion section is answered by the brass instruments, then everyone plays together, and then the brass take over again. Watch out for the great timpani (drum) moments as well (12:00)!
Procession of the Sage (13:30)
This sounds like a monumental procession – have a listen to it and see if you can think about what might be parading along (I think it might be elephants!). The drums and brass build up until…
The Sage (14:10)
The wise man (or sage) stops the procession and appears. He is very still and quiet – this music lasts for less than a minute!
Dance of the Earth (14:36)
The ending of part 1 is really exciting. Listen to how fast Stravinsky asks the orchestra to play. He builds up layers of melodies and rhythms which don’t quite fit together and this is how he makes the music sound so energised. You can imagine everyone dance in a state of ecstasy – it’s like a rave for orchestra!
Part 2: The Sacrifice
After the excitement of Dance of the Earth, the beginning of part 2 is very calm. It’s a very different landscape from the introduction of part 1 – where do you think it might be set? I always think it sounds like a beautiful and mysterious night sky with lots of stars and the moon.
Mystic Circles of the Young Girls (20:10)
This piece starts quite calmly, with some beautiful melodies played by the violas (the mid-range instrument in the string section). The music keeps alternating between fast and slow sections, and there’s lots of interesting instrumental moments such as the alto flute solo (21:27), but at the end eleven massive drum hits are heard and one of the young girls is chosen…
Glorification of the chosen one (23:12)
This piece is really irregular – it’s like the tribes are calling out to each other. The music is exciting and brash.
Evocation of the ancestors (24:43)
There are moments here where the wind and brass play exactly together – it sounds almost like the tribes appealing to the ancestors, perhaps calling for a good harvest. At 25:06 the bassoon section gets to play this music (they are the lowest members of the woodwind family).
Ritual Action of the Ancestors (25:23)
As a contrast to all the excitement before, this piece starts off quite steadily – it even sounds a bit ploddy! Listen to the beautiful duet between alto flute and cor anglais, which is a really unusual combination (from 25:34). The piece builds up to a massive outburst – watch out for the French horn tune at 27:43 – before everything gets a bit quieter again.
Sacrificial Dance (28:45)
In the final section, one of the dancers has to pretend to sacrifice themselves to the pagan gods by dancing frenetically. This exciting music progresses through irregular jolts and changes, and much of it is extremely difficult to play because the rhythms are always changing! But there are other parts which are quite static as well, as if we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen next (29:13). Watch out for 32:16 – it sounds like a chase!
The Rite of Spring is a colourful and exciting piece, and in 1913 no-one had ever heard anything like it! We hope you’ve enjoyed exploring it with us!
Other pieces to listen to by Stravinsky:
‘The Firebird’ was the first ballet that Stravinsky composed music for. This ballet is based on a Russian folktale about the magical firebird, who saves Prince Ivan and 13 princesses from the evil King Katschei. This piece is the ‘Infernal Dance of King Katschei,’ and illustrates the moment that Katschei is destroyed by the Firebird. What movements do you think the dancer playing King Katschei might do to this music?
‘Petrushka’ is a ballet all about traditional Russian puppets, who in this story are alive with their own thoughts and emotions! This piece of music is from the opening of the ballet, where the audience sees a Shrovetide Fair taking place on stage. At this fair there is a ferris wheel, a carousel and a puppet theatre. Listen to the music – what else do you think could be happening at the fair?
- If you’d like to explore some of the other music that the LPO performs, we also have listening guides for Dvorak’s Symphony no. 9, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5, and ‘The Planets’ by Holst
- Or you may like to listen to the players of the LPO performing a different piece of music – Prokofiev is another very famous Russian composer, and in this video you can watch some of the LPO performing his most wintry piece
- If you’re enjoying learning more about different pieces of music, perhaps you could start your own music club with friends and family?