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Contents

Music in the Early Twentieth Century

THE RITE OF SPRING

Chapter:
CHAPTER 3 Aristocratic Maximalism
Source:
MUSIC IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY
Author(s):
Richard Taruskin

With this rapturous reception of Petrushka in mind, Stravinsky returned to “The Great Sacrifice,” the stone-age ballet he had begun sketching the year before, with a new sense of urgency, knowing what he would now have to top. We can form an idea of what his third ballet would have been like had it been his second—that is, had he composed it right after Firebird. As mentioned earlier, the “Danse russe” from the first tableau in Petrushka had originally been sketched for “The Great Sacrifice” after Stravinsky had consulted with the man who would eventually write its scenario, the painter and archeologist Nikolai Roerich (1874–1947), a matchless connoisseur of Slavic antiquity.

Stravinsky never left any direct testimony that this was the case, but we can deduce it from the nature of the folk songs on which the “Danse russe” was based. Roerich, who had made a special study (published in 1909) of Russian pagan festivals, told Stravinsky about two of them: Semik, a spring festival of ancestor worship at which wreaths were cast on water to predict the future, and Kupala, the midsummer festival (celebrated in Christian times as St. John’s Eve), when images of the sun god Yarilo were burned in effigy, young men leapt over the fire, and then chose brides from among the eligible maidens of the tribe. Together, Stravinsky and Roerich planned the first tableau of “The Great Sacrifice” around these holiday rituals, paying special attention to a passage in an eleventh-century Kievan manuscript called the Primary Chronicle, or “Tale of Bygone Years” (Povest’ vremennïkh let), in which the Christian monk Nestor the Chronicler had described the wild customs of the surrounding pagan tribes, the “Radimichi, the Vyatichi, and the Severi”:

Living in the forests like the very beasts, there were no marriages among them, but simply games [igrï] in between the villages. When the people gathered for games, for dancing, and for all other devilish amusements, the men on these occasions carried off wives for themselves [umïkakhu zhenï sebe], and each took any woman with whom he had arrived at an understanding. In fact, they even had two or three wives apiece.28

Nestor’s very diction (as indicated in the brackets) found its way into the scenario Stravinsky and Roerich worked out, and is now reflected in the titles of the constituent dances. The ceremony here described became the Igra umïkaniya (“Game of abduction”) in the first tableau. That was the dance that became the “Danse russe” in Petrushka. Its main theme was a khorovod or ritual dance Stravinsky found in Rimsky-Korsakov’s old anthology (Ex. 3-22a). Its title, “Ai, vo polye lipin’ka,” means “A Linden Tree Stands in the Field,” and the text, slightly paraphrased, runs as follows:

In the field there stands a linden tree; beneath the linden is a tent; in the tent there stands a table; at the table sits a maiden. She has picked blossoms from the grass; she has plaited a wreath from the garden; it is woven with precious rubies. “Who shall wear the wreath? No old man shall carry off this wreath; my youth shall not be restrained! My sweetheart will carry off this wreath; my youth shall not be restrained!”

It is a matchmaking song about “carrying off the wreath” (=the bride). And the song that formed the middle section of the “Danse russe” (Ex. 3-22b) was even more closely allied with the scenario since it was an Ivanovskaya, a song for Ivanovskaya noch’ or St. John’s Eve (=Kupala), with a text that read, “Oh yes, I’m running after a bride!”

In all likelihood, Roerich himself directed Stravinsky (who would probably not have known the ethnographic significance of an Ivanovskaya) to the tune in Ex. 3-22b.

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ex. 3-22a “Ai, vo polye lipin’ka” compared with main tune of “Danse russe”

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ex. 3-22b Ivanovskaya (F. M. Istomin and S. M. Lyapunov, Pesni russkogo naroda [1899], p. 167)

But having used it in the “Danse russe,” Stravinsky needed fresh tunes when he returned to “The Great Sacrifice” after Petrushka. Again Roerich probably came to the rescue, telling Stravinsky that of all the European peoples of the Russian Empire, the Liths and Letts—Lithuanians and Latvians as they are called in modern times—were the most recently Christianized, having remained pagans until 1386, and had performed ritual animal (though not human) sacrifices within living memory. Accordingly, Stravinsky sought out a recently published anthology of Lithuanian wedding songs, from which he adopted several tunes in the first tableau, including the high bassoon melody that opens the whole work, and also the tune given in Ex. 3-23 for use in the Igra umïkaniya, the “Game of Abduction” in what became the definitive version of “The Great Sacrifice,” performed in Paris in 1913 under the name Le sacre du printemps, of which the standard English title, The Rite of Spring, is a translation.

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ex. 3-23 Tevuseli manu! (Anton Juszkiewicz, Melodje ludowe litewskie [Cracow, 1900], no. 142)

Comparison of this tune with the corresponding section of the new ballet in the composer’s arrangement for piano four-hands (Ex. 3-24), and between the new dance and the jolly “Danse russe” that it replaced, shows how determined Stravinsky was to maximalize his achievements in Petrushka. The tune is presented only once complete; thereafter it is presented only in fragments, often interrupted by brutally interpolated dissonant chords. Indeed, the whole dance is permeated with the sort of dissonance that had still been a special effect in Petrushka: “polychords” consisting of superimposed triads and seventh chords drawn from the /0 3 6 9/nodes of the same octatonic collection employed in “Chez Pétrouchka,” namely C, E♭, F♯, and A.

At the very outset of Ex. 3-24, the Primo part is mixing dominant sevenths on C and E♭ against a pounding F♯ in the bass, played by the Secondo. In the last two measures of the example, the Primo continues the dominant seventh of E♭ while the Secondo arpeggiates triads—very confusingly spelled (perhaps simply to disguise their identity?)—on A and C. A similar arpeggiation in the Secondo part (Ex. 3-25) circulates triads at all four nodes, sounding all the while against “polychordal” mixtures of the same triads in the Primo that are frequently voiced in the maximally dissonant form of “clusters” (scale segments sounded as simultaneous harmony).

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ex. 3-24 Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (piano four-hands arrangement), “Ritual of Abduction,” mm. 1–10

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ex. 3-25 Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (piano four-hands arrangement), “Ritual of Abduction,” mm. 23–28

Indeed, maximal dissonance was one of Stravinsky’s chief means for evoking the pitiless brutality and inhumanity of primitive religion as he imagined it. At the same time he sought validation for his stylistic extravagances in ethnographic authenticity. What is chiefly maximalized in The Rite, then, is the neonationalist ideal, the project of wringing stylistic innovation and renewed technical resources from archaic folkloristic models. For this purpose Stravinsky cultivated another manner of treating the octatonic scale, one with fewer precedents in earlier Russian music (though it can be found occasionally in the work of Rimsky-Korsakov and his contemporaries), but which was particularly well suited to the task of harmonizing Russian folk tunes in a maximally dissonant but consistent (and “authentic”) fashion.

In addition to the manner of “partitioning” the octatonic collection (or set) already illustrated by the Petrushka-chord and the harmonization of the “Game of Abduction”—namely, grouping its constituent tones into four major or minor triads or seventh chords with roots along a cycle of minor thirds—it is also possible to partition the scale (that is, group its constituent tones) into four minor tetrachords with starting pitches arrayed along a similar cycle. (A minor tetrachord consists of the first four notes of the minor scale, its constituent intervals being tone-semitone-tone or TST; see Ex. 3-26.) The reason why this partition of the octatonic scale has a special affinity for Russian folklore is that many Russian folk melodies, especially the ones associated with ancient “calendar songs” that bear the traces of pre-Christian agrarian religious observances (hence especially relevant to the subject of The Rite of Spring), are confined precisely to the notes of a minor tetrachord. An especially economical way of giving such a melody a maximalistic harmonization, therefore, would be to accompany it with the tetrachord that forms its octatonic complement—that is, the tetrachord which, when added to the tune’s tetrachord, will exhaust the octatonic collection. The two tetrachords that function in this complementary way, like the two constituent triads in a Petrushka-chord, have their beginnings or root-notes a tritone apart.

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ex. 3-26 Tetrachordal partition of an octatonic scale

Ex. 3-27a shows an authentic Russian folk song, recorded in the field in the mid-1960s, that belongs to a genre particularly relevant to the action of The Rite of Spring: it is a vesnyanka (from vesna, “spring”), a song that survives from an ancient ritual of “calling in the spring” at winter’s end by shouting spells. Like many vesnyanki, it is confined in its ambitus to a minor tetrachord. Ex. 3-27b shows a melody of exactly the same structure, hence recognizably (or at least plausibly) a vesnyanka, from the section of The Rite of Spring called “Ritual Action of the Ancestors.” It is harmonized with a vamping bass and a countermelody both drawn from the complementary octatonic tetrachord in the manner just described. It is one of many instances in the ballet of maximalistically harmonized melodies that are either authentic folk artifacts or convincing imitations thereof. By beginning with a piece of folk “reality” and applying a radical new technique to it, Stravinsky sought authenticity and modernity at once.

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ex. 3-27a Oy vir vir kolodez, vesnyanka recorded ca. 1965 from the singing of Agrafena Glinkina, Smolensk, Russia

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ex. 3-27b Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, from “Ritual Action of the Ancestors”

From the opposition of the “x and y tetrachords,” as they are labeled in Ex. 3-27b, Stravinsky educed a three-note harmonic skeleton or “source chord” consisting of the outer notes of the one tetrachord accompanied by the lowest note of its complement, producing an intervallic configuration that can be represented as /0 6 11/. This harmony pervades The Rite from beginning to end, giving rise in the process to some of the most famously dissonant chords on its musical surface, like the one that chugs along in ostinato fashion to accompany the “Spring Auguries” in the first tableau, or the first chord in the culminating “Sacrificial Dance” in the second tableau. Ex. 3-28 gives a sampling of them. (In some cases, the inversion of the source chord—/0 5 11/—is used.)

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ex. 3-28a The Rite-chord, “Dance of the Adolescent Girls” (Part I)

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ex. 3-28b The Rite-chord, “Sacrificial Dance” (Part II)

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ex. 3-28c The Rite-chord, sketch for the “Glorification of the Chosen One” (Part II)

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ex. 3-28d The Rite-chord, preparatory measure before “Glorification of the Chosen One”

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ex. 3-28e The Rite-chord, “Spring Rounds” (Part I)

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ex. 3-28f The Rite-chord, “Mystic Circles” (Part II)

The most maximalistic dances in The Rite of Spring are the ones that conclude the two respective tableaux. The “Dance of the Earth” at the end of part I is a montage of ostinatos, one of which is an adaptation of an instrumental dance tune or naigrïsh of the kind that, sixty-five years earlier, had furnished the point of departure for Glinka’s Kamarinskaya, the “acorn from which the oak of Russian music grew,” as Chaikovsky had so famously called it.29 Stravinsky, inevitably conscious of this legacy, was resolutely attempting to achieve its ne plus ultra. This source melody is shown in Ex. 3-29a as it appears in Stravinsky’s sketches for the ballet; directly under it, in Ex. 3-29b, is a hypothetical original version, lacking the whole-tone harmonization; finally, Ex. 3-29c shows an authentic wedding song, adaptable as a naigrïsh, for comparison. Another source sketch for the dance is shown in Ex. 3-29d; this one resembles a melody from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (Ex. 3-29e).

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ex. 3-29a Source melody for Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, “Dance of the Earth,” sketchbook, p. 35

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ex. 3-29b Source melody for Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, “Dance of the Earth,” lower line of sketch

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ex. 3-29c Source melody for Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, “Dance of the Earth,” Wedding song Letal golub vorkoval (“The dove flew, cooing”)

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ex. 3-29d Source melody for Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, “Dance of the Earth,” sketchbook, p. 35

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ex. 3-29e Source melody for Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, “Dance of the Earth,” Nikolai Rim-sky-Korsakov, Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (1907), Act II

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ex. 3-30 Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, “Dance of the Earth,” end

Between them, these two source melodies provided Stravinsky with all of the material out of which he constructed the “Dance of the Earth”; it is fascinating to trace the process by which it took shape in his sketches. Even the punctuating chord that injects a note of unpredictability into the proceedings is a derivation from the first source melody, consisting of a “verticalization” of several of its constituent pitches. What governs the whole is the combination of whole-tone and octatonic elements drawn from scales that have the familiar nodal points C and F♯ in common. By the end of the dance, the timpani is very explicitly directing a harmonic oscillation between these poles. As we found out in the case of the Coronation bells from Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov, however, a tritone oscillation produces a harmonic stalemate that makes closure difficult. How to end the piece? Stravinsky’s first idea for an ending is shown in Fig. 3-5a, a page from his sketchbook. He originally meant to end the dance, and with it the first tableau, with a sustained version of the punctuating chord in full brass, crescendo al possibile.

The Rite of Spring

fig. 3-5a Stravinsky’s sketch for the conclusion of Danse de la terre (The Rite of Spring, end of first tableau).

Why did he cancel such a striking idea? Obviously, one can never really know the answer to such a question, but pondering it is instructive. For one thing, the chord might have made too obvious an ending to a section of the ballet the whole character of which is one of ceaseless and essentially undifferentiated activity. The blunter ending finally decided upon (Ex. 3-30), just an abrupt and shocking halt, emphasizes in retrospect that very ceaselessness. For another—perhaps more important—thing, the bass note of the sustained chord, an octave G in the tubas, confuses the very clear bipolar tonality of the dance based on oscillation between C and F♯ (the very combination that, in block superimposition, we know as the Petrushka-chord).

In any event, the “Dance of the Earth” was a momentous achievement, for it shows how profoundly Stravinsky’s musical imagination was stirred by the manipulation of elements abstracted in neonationalist fashion from folk songs, and how thoroughly many of the most pregnantly original of The Rite’s technical innovations had their origins in this maximalistic approach to received material. The “Dance of the Earth” is at once one of the most radical sections of The Rite—surely the most radical by far in part 1—and the dance most rigorously based on folk-derived source melodies.

Notes:

(28) The Russian Primary Chronicle, trans. Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), p. 56.

(29) Chaikovsky, diary entry for 27 June 1888; quoted in David Brown, Glinka (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 1.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 10 Dec. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 10 Dec. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003009.xml