STRAVINSKY: THE RITE OF SPRING





Stravinsky once dreamed of a young girl dancing herself to death for an audience of tribal elders. The scene would become the climax of his iconic work.

For help fleshing out his scenario, Stravinsky turned to Nikoli Roerich, a Russian painter and folklore guru, who provided knowledge of Slavic antiquity
from sources as varied as Alexander Afanasyev’s three-volume The Slav’s Poetic Attitudes Toward Nature, the medieval monk Nestor’s Primary Chronicle,
and Herodotus’ description of the Scythians (in book IV of The Persian Wars). The result was a ballet score steeped in the tradition of ancient Russia –
all save one scene: the climactic sacrifice, uncorroborated by any source, remained Stravinsky’s invention.

The drama of The Rite is organized around two acts. In the first, we are treated to a series of scenes likely co-opted from the summer solstice festival
Kupala: a crone performing auguries for young men, a game of wife-abduction, a competition between rival teams… All of which is interrupted by the entrance
of “The Oldest and Wisest One,” a patriarch who bestows his “kiss upon the earth,” after which the people begin a wild stomping dance.

The second act begins with maidens performing midnight rituals on a sacred hillock. In a prototype of musical chairs, one of the girls is singled out as
“The Chosen One,” and glorified by the others in dance. The elders enter to witness her sacrifice, whereupon the victim dances her final, fatal dance.

The story of The Rite’s premiere has since become the succés de scandale par excellence with an opening night riot at the lavish Théâtre des Champs
Élysées production complete with undercurrents of class warfare and savage press (“massacre of spring” was a common refrain). It inspired copycat
scandals, notably Jean Cocteau’s Parades. Featuring music by the eccentric Erik Satie, Diaghilev’s ballet troupe, Massine’s choreography, and set design
by Pablo Picasso, the central importance of scandal is attested to by Cocteau’s decision not to leave such things to chance: he hired people to show up
and riot.

Despite its fast approaching centennial, the Rite once again feels surprisingly modern. Not so much in Stravinsky’s dissonant harmonies and violent, jagged
rhythms: though once shocking and dissonant even in an era of shocking and dissonant scores, that threshold has long since passed, and Stravinsky’s
technical innovations assimilated into canon. More modern by far are deeper thematic and structural elements. Formal ideas based on non sequitur and
absence of transition, anticipating the short attention span of mass media culture. A new kind of theater — rather than depict a pagan ritual, the ballet became
the pagan ritual — blurring the lines separating reality and fiction. And finally, the notion that beneath all the technical sophistication, mankind’s potential for
savagery might not exist far below the surface. The sacrificial victim might well stand in for civilization itself.