A Scandalous Ballet with a Barbaric Signature

Sacre Printemps
Vitality-fertility. © Charles Thibo

The adulation of nature. Blasphemy! The sacrifice of a young woman. Horror! Music with broken harmonies, dissonance? A scandal! Paris was in uproar in 1913 after Igor Stravinsky had presented the ballet “The Rite of Spring” (Le Sacre du Printemps), the premiere almost provoked a riot in the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. “This ‘stuff’ certainly should be played on some barbaric instruments”, a critic wrote, not fully aware that he actually grasped an important aspect of the composer’s general idea: To express the idea of primitive and therefore true vitality, he wrote large parts of the piece in a fictive “barbaric style”.

Swinging the sonic hammer

The ballet is divided in two parts: Adoration of the Earth and The Sacrifice. Stravinsky’s idea was to set to music a pagan ritual with the idea of the fertility of spring as the leitmotiv. He wrote the ballet for a very large orchestra and if you listen to the recording of the Cleveland Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, you will be hit by a sonic hammer several times, which was precisely the intention of Stravinsky. The brutal, merciless aspect of nature and the consequence – man abiding by primitive rules to survive like the survival of the fittest – required an extraordinary instrumentation: five times the usual number of woodwinds, eight horns, five trumpets, three trombones, two tubas, percussion an extra numerous strings.

A version for two pianos

It took very long until I discovered this ballet and its unmatched revolutionary beauty. I had to make a detour. Two years ago I heard a version of the piece transcribed for two pianos, performed by Alice Sara Ott and Francesco Tristano at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg. At first I was lost, too loud, too brutal. But the performance had made me curious and I studied the original version for orchestra… and discovered a whole new universe. Stravinsky’s universe! This coincided with me stumbling over Stravinsky’s first ballet written for the Ballets Russes in Paris, “The Firebird” that I have presented in a post in March this year. Stravinsky noted down the first ideas for “The Rite of Spring” in St. Petersburg while he was completing the score of “The Firebird”.

A scandal? Not anymore!

Today it takes much more to provoke a scandal in the field of Arts. In June the Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch will present a performance in Australia with a freshly slaughtered ox and lots of blood on the stage. Animal rights activists have already protested against such lack of respect towards animals. Stravinsky’s performance does not raise any eyebrows anymore. Nevertheless, the two pianists I heard in Luxembourg, Ott and Tristano, alluded to the outcry of 1913 when they selected a recording of the piano version as the central element of their joint album “Scandale”. The concert was part of the promotional tour.

However the performance by Ott and Tristano does not even come close to a scandal. Stripping Stravinsky’s piece of the bombastic orchestral dimension is a courageous act. You can do that. But the result is plainly sterile, boring, annoying in the end. While Stravinsky’s ruggedness is conserved, its cholourful vitality, its emotional power and its philosophic depth is lost. The music has lost its soul, and a rite without a soul is just a ritual.

© Charles Thibo

Published by

de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.