Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

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Haydn: Symphony No. 70
Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 2
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring


Symphony No. 70 in D Major, Hob.I:70

COMPOSER: Born March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Lower Austria; died May 31, 1809, Vienna
WORLD PREMIERE: Haydn conducted the premiere on December 18, 1779, at Esterháza, the country home of Haydn’s patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, for Nikolaus’ birthday.
INSTRUMENTATION: Flute, 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

With the exception of his Paris and London collections, documentation regarding Joseph Haydn’s symphonies is spotty at best. Symphony No. 70 is a glowing exception: we know why Haydn wrote it and the date of its premiere. Indeed, a symphony as brilliant as this deserves a nickname; without one, it tends to be overlooked among Haydn’s 100- plus symphonies.

Music was a regular and important part of life on the estate of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, Haydn’s employer. Esterházy maintained a full roster of musicians to perform in his own private orchestra, and Haydn served as the Prince’s court composer. In 1779, a fire destroyed the opera house at Esterháza. Esterházy lost no time replacing it and asked Haydn to compose a symphony in honor of the new hall.

Symphony No. 70, like the building it honors, breaks new ground. Before No. 70, Haydn did not typically use trumpets and timpani in his symphonies; in No. 70 and subsequent works, these instruments became standard in Haydn’s ensemble. No. 70 also plays with tonality in a manner unusual for a Classical symphony: two of its four movements are in D minor rather than its home key of D major, and both of these – the second and fourth – feature contrapuntal writing not often found in the symphonies of Haydn’s time. Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon describes the minor movements as “the intellectualizing side of Haydn’s character,” while the major-key movements display “the public face of Haydn.” The Andante describes itself with Haydn’s subtitle, “Specie d’un canon in contrapunto doppio” (a two-part canon), which displays Haydn’s mastery. The Finale likewise features counterpoint, this time a triple fugue that opens in minor and concludes with a brilliant, shimmering return to D major.


Violin Concerto No. 2

COMPOSER: Born March 25, 1881, Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania); died September 26, 1945, New York City
WORK COMPOSED: Bartók wrote the work for his longtime friend, Hungarian violinist Zoltán Székely, in 1937–38
WORLD PREMIERE: Willem Mengelberg conducted the premiere with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and violinist Zoltán Székely in Amsterdam on March 23, 1939.
MOST RECENT OREGON SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE: May 20, 2013; Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Jennifer Koh, violin
INSTRUMENTATION: Solo violin, 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, gong, snare drum, celeste, harp, strings

Béla Bartók and violinist Zoltán Székely were friends and colleagues of long standing; they frequently performed in recital together, and Székely, with the Hungarian Quartet, premiered many of Bartók’s landmark string quartets. In 1937, Székely asked Bartók for a violin concerto, but the composer was more interested in creating a theme-and-variations for his violinist friend. Székely ultimately prevailed in his request for a traditional concerto, but Bartók satisfied his own desires as well by incorporating theme-and-variations throughout much of the three movements, particularly the second.

Throughout the concerto, particularly the opening notes of the Allegro non troppo, Bartók crafted melodies and rhythms that sound like folk music, although all such phrases are in fact Bartók’s own. From the opening notes, we hear the full range of Bartók’s expressiveness. The solo violin enters over a series of pulsing harp chords and pizzicato strings and takes us on a kaleidoscopic tour of highs and lows, both sonic and emotional. “[Bartók] was trying to find out how well I had grasped [the concerto], asking particularly my opinion of a passage in the first movement,” violinist Yehudi Menuhin remembered. “‘It’s rather chromatic,’ I offered. ‘Yes, it’s chromatic,’ he said, but then nudging me toward the point he was making: ‘You see that it comes very often?’ Which it does, some 32 times, never exactly the same. ‘Well, I wanted to show Schoenberg that one can use all 12 tones and still remain tonal.’”

The Andante tranquillo features a lyrical theme with six variations of strikingly different shape and color. One variation in particular is rather subdued, accompanied by an ethereal grouping of high woodwinds, celeste, and harp, while another features sharp, discordant double stops. In the final movement, Bartók continues with the variation structure (he described this movement to Székely as “a free variation of the first”) but infuses the whole with faster tempos and the coarse, primal vitality of a Hungarian gypsy dance.


The Rite of Spring

COMPOSER: Born June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum (now Lomonosov), Russia; died April 6, 1971, New York City
WORLD PREMIERE: May 29, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Pierre Monteux led the orchestra and the Ballets Russes, with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, and costumes and sets designed by Nicholas Roerich.
MOST RECENT OREGON SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE: May 21, 2012; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 piccolos, 3 flutes, alto flute, 4 oboes, 2 English horns, 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 2 bass clarinets, 4 bassoons, 2 contrabassoons, 8 horns, 2 Wagner tubas, 4 trumpets, high trumpet, bass trumpet, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, antique cymbals, bass drum, cymbals, guiro, tambourine, triangle, tam-tam, strings

Imagine yourself in Paris, sitting in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on May 29, 1913. You have come to see the Ballets Russes in Les sylphides and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, plus a new work by an up-and-coming young Russian composer named Igor Stravinsky. All goes well until Stravinsky’s ballet begins. Before long, you hear hisses and murmurs of disapproval from the audience, which grow in volume and intensity until, without warning, a full-scale riot breaks out in the theater. As you make your way out of the hall, you ask yourself, “How on earth did this happen?” Good question.

Stravinsky’s initial concept for The Rite of Spring came to him in 1910, while he was working on The Firebird. In his 1935 autobiography, Stravinsky described a ‘fleeting vision’: “I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” He floated this idea past Nikolai Roerich, a noted archaeologist and Russia’s foremost authority on folk art and ancient ritual. Roerich was intrigued by this concept, and the two men mapped out a plot for a ballet depicting scenes of pagan Russia, culminating in the sacrifice of The Chosen One.

Over the years, Stravinsky claimed several different origins of the ideas for The Rite of Spring, each contradicting the others. After his first explanation of the vision that interrupted his work on The Firebird, he began revising or purifying the history of The Rite. In 1920, he told a reporter The Rite of Spring had been conceived without any thought to storyline or ballet staging, and finally repudiated the folk and Russian underpinnings of the work altogether. Why Stravinsky revised the origin story for The Rite of Spring is complex, and has to do with the initial failure of the work in its original form as a ballet, as well as with Stravinsky’s desire, after he left Russia permanently and denounced his homeland following the 1917 revolution, to remake himself as a “Western” composer. As musicologist Richard Taruskin notes, “He rejected the parochial lore of his birthright and embraced an aggressively cosmopolitan ideology of absolute music – music without a passport, without a past, without ‘extramusical’ content of any kind.”

The Rite of Spring is written in two large sections, “The Adoration of the Earth” and “The Sacrifice,” each containing many smaller sections with their own titles. The musical structure is formed around many repeating rhythmic patterns, called ostinatos. Stravinsky also quotes fragments of melodies from a number of different Russian and Lithuanian folk songs. Harmonically, Stravinsky combines the modal scales of the folk songs with an octatonic scale (a scale made of alternating whole and half steps), to create rich and unusual sonorities. What gives The Rite of Spring its unique energy is Stravinsky’s innovative decision to abandon a steady beat in favor of constantly shifting ostinatos and melodic fragments. One fragment follows after another with no modulation or linkage, in an abrupt, dislocated manner. This results in music of such complexity that Stravinsky often had trouble determining where the measure lines should fall in the score.

Much has been written about the riot that broke out at the first performance of The Rite of Spring. The uproar was actually a response to Vaslav Nijinsky’s provocative choreography rather than to the music itself, which became impossible to hear as the audience’s reaction grew louder. The open dress rehearsal a few days earlier occasioned no such violent reaction, probably because those attending were music and dance cognoscenti. In contrast, the audience attending the premiere was made up of the general public, along with supporters and detractors of Serge Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes. This audience expected an evening of standard ballet fare; it is no wonder they protested Nijinsky’s shocking and extremely un-balletic (i.e., not classical) steps. As one Paris critic noted, “at the end of the Prelude the crowd simply stopped listening to the music so that they might better amuse themselves with the choreography.” Most reviews of the opening performance paid scant attention to the music, aside from mentioning Stravinsky as the composer.

The performance continued over the riot, which included fistfights and flying debris.

Nijinsky had to call out the steps to the dancers from offstage, as they could not hear the music over the increasing pandemonium in the house. The promotional value of such an opening was not lost on either Stravinsky or Diaghilev. Stravinsky recalled, “We were excited, angry, disgusted, and . . . happy . . . Diaghilev’s only comment was ‘Exactly what I wanted.’”

Despite the firestorm of publicity that followed the premiere, The Rite of Spring ballet was performed only a half-dozen times. Ironically, given its negative impact, Nijinsky’s original choreography has since been lost. The Rite of Spring was not positively received until the spring of 1914, when Pierre Monteux conducted it as a concert piece. Its status as the epitome of 20th-century music did not coalesce until the end of the 1920s, after the score was published and The Rite was performed by orchestras from Leipzig to Buenos Aires.

© 2018 Elizabeth Schwartz


Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and other organizations, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. Schwartz also writes about performing arts and culture for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine.



Haydn: Symphony No. 70
Thomas Fey – Heidelberg Symphony
Hanssler 98517

Adam Fischer – Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra
4-Nimbus 5652

Note: Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony recently released a CD of Haydn Symphonies Nos. 53, 64, and 96
Pentatone 5186612

Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 2
James Ehnes, violin
Gianandrea Noseda – London Philharmonic Orchestra
Chandos 10690

Gil Shaham, violin
Eric Jacobson – The Knights
Canary Classics 16

Stravinsky: Rite of Spring
Igor Stravinsky – Columbia Symphony Orchestra
Sony Classical 42433

Valery Gergiev – Kirov Theater Orchestra
Philips 468035

James DePreist – Oregon Symphony
Delos 3278