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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 Aristocratic Maximalism
Richard Taruskin

The only dance that exceeds it in its startling maximalism is the one that had to exceed it: the “Sacrificial Dance” at the ballet’s end. Like the rest of the ballet it revels in the crashing force of a huge orchestra and a chronically elevated level of dissonance. (“Imagine!” one Russian reviewer exclaimed after the first performance, exaggerating only slightly, “from beginning to end there is not a single pure triad!”30) But now Stravinsky added to all of that an equally extreme dislocation of meter in order to convey the lurching, wrenching quality of the dance that will lead the Chosen One to her inevitable death.

This technique of constantly shifting the lengths of measures had been amply prefigured earlier in the ballet, especially past the point at which the sacrificial maiden had been chosen by fate. In the “Glorification of the Chosen One,” for example, there is a maddening contest between elements that are absolutely fixed and those that are, so to speak, absolutely variable. The opening measure (given in Ex. 3-28c), with its violent drumbeat in the middle, constitutes the “theme” in the outer sections of the dance. Each of its twenty subsequent appearances is absolutely identical to the first.

What is not uniform is the grouping—that is, the number of identical repetitions that will make up each successive statement of the returning theme (anywhere from one to four)—and also the number of eighth-note beats that will elapse between the statements (anywhere from two to thirty-eight). These intervening beats are “marked” by a vamp of Rite-chords as already shown in Ex. 3-28d. The number of these beats being unpredictable, each return to the theme is experienced as a disjuncture, a disruption of an “immobile” uniformity. Momentum is maintained by exploiting this interplay of utter fixity and its opposite, utter mutability. The listener is involved, so to speak, in a harrowing guessing game: When will vamp give way to theme? How many iterations will a given statement of the theme contain? Metaphorically, one is left constantly wondering when one is to be beaten again, and how long the beating will last.

The middle section of the dance, distinguished from the surrounding ones by a key signature of five flats, shifts over to another set of rigidly fixed (or “hypostatized”) elements. Three new static ideas, radically differentiated in instrumentation, are intercut. As before, the only variable elements are temporal, “quantitative.” But as before, whatever is variable gets varied to the hilt! That simple axiom is the key to Stravinsky’s rhythmic innovations in The Rite. They are of two distinct types. One is the “immobile,” unchanging ostinato or vamp, sometimes quite literally hypnotic, as when the Elders charm the Chosen One to perform her dance of death. That is what their Ritual Action (Ex. 3-27b) is all about, and that is why, except for a brief middle section, the beat-rhythm of that dance is one of the most regular and relentless in the ballet, and the most undifferentiated as to stress.

The other type is the one that was such a novelty—for European art music, that is; in Russian folklore it had been a fixture from time immemorial. This was the rhythm of irregularly spaced downbeats, requiring a correspondingly (and, for “Europe” and for “art,” unprecedentedly) varied metric barring in the notation. To demonstrate that the device had precedents in Russian folk song it is only necessary to quote a relevant example from Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous anthology. The wedding song “The Bells are Ringing in Yevlashev Village” (Ex. 3-31) is especially convincing because it has a story attached to it. Rimsky transcribed it from the singing of a village woman who worked as a maid for his fellow composer Alexander Borodin. “I struggled till late at night trying to reproduce the song,” Rimsky reported in his memoirs. “Rhythmically it was unusually freakish, though it flowed naturally from the mouth of Dunyasha Vinogradova, a native of one of the provincial districts along the Volga.”31 In the end, the meter shifts he adopted have a decidedly “Stravinskian” appearance.

The Ne Plus Ultra

ex. 3-31 Zvon kolokol v yevlasheve sele (Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, 100 Russian Folk Songs [1877], no. 72)

Particularly fascinating and innovative (hence influential) was the way in which Stravinsky contrived to have his two rhythmic/metric types—the “passive” ostinato and the active shifting stress—coexist within a single texture. One notable instance comes in the middle section of the Glorification dance. Beneath a variable-downbeat pattern in the violins’ and violas’ pizzicati, the lower strings, lower winds, and percussion play a rigid figure of four eighth-notes’ duration (Ex. 3-32). Neither element is in syncopation with respect to the other, for neither possesses what could be called the defining or dominant rhythm against which the other could be construed as syncopated. They merely go in and out of phase with one another, fixity and mutability coexisting in concurrent, independent strata.

The Ne Plus Ultra

ex. 3-32 Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, “Glorification,” mm. 114–115

The most radical—that is, the “maximal”—form of the variable-downbeat technique is one in which the shifting meters are coordinated on the “subtactile” level—that is, by an equalized note-value that is less than the duration of a felt beat, or tactus. There was no precedent for this technique even in earlier Russian art music; it was Stravinsky’s discovery, his modernist (or neonationalist) breakthrough. And it reaches its zenith, both in terms of complexity of pattern and in terms of fractionated counting value (sixteenths rather than eighths) in the vertiginous “Sacrificial Dance”—the dance “which I could play,” as Stravinsky put it in a memoir, “but did not, at first, know how to write.”32

Also reaching its apogee in the “Sacrificial Dance” was the technique of hypo-statization, extreme fixity of musical “objects.” More than in any earlier number, the metric processes of the “Sacrificial Dance” are “mosaic,” concretized in specific, discrete, and (above all) minuscule musical “tesserae,” the variations in the ostensible “metric” patterns actually reflecting permutations of the order in which these tiny fixed elements are juxtaposed. This is the feature called drobnost’ in Russian—the quality of being not an “organic” whole but a “sum of parts”—raised to the highest power, revealing not just a rhythmic innovation but a novel constructive principle. The literalness of the analogy with tesserae (the tiles in a mosaic)—or “cells,” as later analysts (still influenced, it seems, by the “organicist” ideal) have been calling them—is breathtakingly disclosed in Stravinsky’s sketchbook, when the composer suddenly takes to representing his fixed musical objects with letters, arranging and rearranging them at will (Fig. 3-5b). And he left the articulation of the irregularly spaced downbeats his sequences of tesserae elicited to the most elemental force of all—to volume alone, as expressed by the bass instruments and percussion, especially the timpani (the octave A’s in the Secondo part in Ex. 3-33), which in this dance achieve the status of a terrifying, buffeting force of nature.


(30) Vyacheslav Karatïgin, “Sed’moy kontsert Kussevitskogo,” Rech’, 14 February 1914.

(31) Rimsky-Korsakov, My Musical Life, p. 165.

(32) Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Expositions and Developments (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962), pp. 161–62.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003010.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003010.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003010.xml