Igor Stravinsky | Le Sacre du Printemps


First to sharpen the ax-flint they bent, 
On the green they had gathered, unpent, 
They had gathered beneath the green tent. 
There where whitens a pale tree-trunk, naked,
There where whitens a pale linden trunk. 
By the linden tree, by the young linden, 
By the linden tree, by the young linden, 
The linden trunk 
White and naked.

At the fore, shaggy, lean, hoar of head, 
Moves the wizard, as old as his runes; 
He has lived over two thousand moons. 
And the ax he inhumed. 
From the far lakes he loomed 
Long ago. 
It is his: at the trunk 
The first blow.

And two priestesses in their tenth Spring 
To the old one they bring. 
In their eyes 
Terror lies. 
Like the trunk their young bodies are bright, 
Their wan white 
Hath she only, the tender young linden.

One he took, one he led, 
To the trunk roughly wed, 
A white bride. 
And the ax rose and hissed—
And a voice was upraised 
And then died. 
Thus the first blow was dealt to the trunk.

Others followed him, others upraised 
That age-old bloody ax, 
That keen flint-bladed ax: 
The flesh once, 
The tree twice 
Fiercely cleaving.

And the trunk reddened fast 
And it took on a face. 
Lo,—this notch—is a nose, 
This—an eye, for the nonce. 
The flesh once, 
The trunk twice—
Till all reddened the rise 
And the grass crimsoned deep. 
On the sod 
In the red stains there lies 
A new god.

Poem’s Source

Spring has finally arrived and it seemed impossible for me not to talk about Le sacre du printemps, a musical piece that has always deeply fascinated and mesmerized me. This posts opens with a entrancing poem, Yarila, by Sergey Gorodetsky, poem which, I’ll explain further down, was an inspiration for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Le sacre du printemps

The Rite of Spring, original French Le Sacre du printemps: tableaux de la Russie païenne en deux parties, English in full The Rite of Spring: Pictures from Pagan Russia in Two Parts, is a ballet by Russian modernist composer Igor Stravinsky that premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris on May 29, 1913. It is considered one of the first examples of Modernism in music and is noted for its brutality, its barbaric rhythms, and its dissonance. Its opening performance provided one of the most scandalous premieres in history, with pro and con members of the audience arguing so volubly that the dancers were unable to take their cues from the orchestra. The Rite of Spring still strikes many contemporary listeners as a startlingly modern work. Source

The piece was commissioned by the noted impresario of the Ballets Russes, Serge Diaghilev, who earlier had produced the young composer’s The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911). Stravinsky developed the story of The Rite of Spring, originally to be called The Great Sacrifice, with the aid of artist and mystic Nicholas Roerich, whose name appears with the composer’s on the title page of the earliest publications of the score. The production was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, and its sets and costumes were designed by Roerich. Like Stravinsky’s earlier works for the Ballet Russes, The Rite of Spring was inspired by Russian culture, but, unlike them, it challenged the audience with its chaotic percussive momentum.Source

The music lasts about 40 minutes, and is divided into two parts. It has the subtitle “Pictures from Pagan Russia”. Stravinsky had the idea of composing music which was about country people from old times in Russia who danced a fertility rite. This means: a ceremony which is supposed to bring good luck to the next year’s harvest. In this ancient Russian dance, one young girl is chosen to dance and dance until she dies. She is the sacrifice. She is sacrificed to the god of spring. Source

The painter Nicholas Roerich talked with Stravinsky about the idea for this ballet in 1910. Stravinsky started writing down musical ideas while he was still working on his ballet The Firebird. Then he worked on Petrushka. In 1912 he was able to concentrate on The Rite of Spring. Source

Nicholas Roerich, costume design for Le Sacre
revival of Old Slavic rituals

With the name of Nikolai Roerich an aspect emerges which refers explicitly to a ritual. Around 1910 the painter, mask and stage designer and poet Roerich had formed an artistic circle around himself in Petersburg with the ideal program that proclaimed that a renewal of culture would only be possible through a revival of Old Slavic rituals. His scenario and designs for Sacre’s scenery, masks, and costumes -above all for the shamans, who appear in bear skins – are documents to this idea. Roerich’s conception for the Sacre is guided by the idea that a way out of the problems of the turn of the century could only be possible through recourse to an old, prehistoric cult. Source

At first Stravinsky followed this conception of the rite as determined by Roerich. He even strengthened the aspect of an archaic ceremony in that Stravinsky adopted into the Sacre Old Slavic and Old Russian ritual chants, though in altered form. With the exception of the final movement *Danse Sacrale,” each of the twelve other movements parodies and alienates each of their original traditional liturgical models. Listened to from this angle, Sacre is a deeply conservative work that asserts itself through the ritual chanting of a tradition that reaches back to the mythical and pagan times of Russia. Source

Rite of Spring dancers from the original version

In 1907 was published in Saint-Petersburg a book of poem called Yar, Lyric and Lyric-Epic verse, by Sergey Gorodetsky a poet just two years Stravinsky’s junior, a poet for whom the Russian literary community held the highest hopes. Mirsky wrote of him:

In Yar (roughly ‘vital sap’) he displayed a wonderful gift of rhythm and a curious power of creating  a self-invented -quasi-Russian- mythology. Yar remains as the most interesting monument of its time, when mystical anarchism was in the air, when Vyacheslav Ivanov believed in the possibility of a new mythological age, and when the belief was abroad that the vital forces of man’s elemental  nature were to burst the fetters of civilization and of the world order. Source

(Pictured left is a collage I made, titled Yarila, and available for purchase here in my store)

(…) One can assume that Stravinsky read the book complete before he selected two of the poems for song-texts. (Stravinsky’s wife was friend’s with the poet) If so, he certainly read, on pages 23-24, a poem entitled ‘Yarila’. This title is the name of one of the principal gods of Slavonic pre-Christian mythology, a name that has been associated etymologically with Eros and also with yaravoi, the spraying corn planting. Because celebrations in his honor were often orgiastic, he has also been linked with Dionysus. But in his principal mythological role he was the god of spring and fecundity. It is as such, as the new-born god of spring that Gorodesky deals with him in YarilaSource

In the poem’s lines, unmistakably, lie the essential elements of Stravinsky’s dream of Le Sacre du printemps: a pagan rite, the sage elders, the sacrifice of a young girl to propitiate the god of spring. The likeness is too close to be coincidental. This conjecture has been reinforced by the reaction of both Russian and English readers to whom the poem has been shown. Recognition occurs inevitably no later than the third or fourth stanza, and always with an exclamatory, ‘It’s Le Sacre!’.Source

Without delving into the psychology of dreams, visions, and memory, one can still conclude that ‘Yarila‘, once read by Stravinsky in 1907, was never given another thought. The subject matter held no interest for him. Discarded, it nevertheless dropped into that ‘deep well of the unconscious’ where it remained for three years, ready to be summoned into consciousness when some external influence would stimulate its release. “Dreams are my psychological digestive system’, Stravinsky wrote; and the ‘Yarila’-Sacre complex is a nice example of how raw material is stored, combined with other elements, and finally put to use by the creative faculty.Source


The Rite of Spring is divided into two tableaux or parts, and each part has several sections:

  • Part 1: The Adoration of the Earth

In the Introduction we hear the coming of spring. A bassoon starts all by itself on a very high note. Gradually other instruments join in until it sounds like the swarming of insects and other spring noises. In The Auguries of Spring – Dances of the Young Girls we hear two chords played together, each chord is in a different key. This chord which is in two keys at once is stamped out by the strings and eight horns. A rocking tune is heard on the cor anglais.This leads to The Game of Capture in which we hear a piccolo trumpet (a small kind of trumpet) play a quick, flutter-tongue melody. Round-dances of Spring is a country tune on high and low clarinets followed by a slow dance for strings and woodwinds. The music is then repeated with immense loud intensity, soon followed by quiet flute trills.Games of the Rival Tribes uses timpani, low brass instruments and horns to describe the furious tribes. The Procession of the Sage is the entry of the wise man (the sage). It builds into a big climax. Adoration of the Earth-The Sage is a short bit of very quiet music, leading to Dance of the Earth which leads Part One to a wild end. Source

  • Part 2: The Sacrifice

The  Introduction describes the night. Lots of chords in several keys at once leads to a tune in the strings. Mysterious Circles of the Young Girls. This is where one girl is chosen to die. Six solo violas play the tune, an alto flute is heard. Trumpets and horns with mutes interrupt the circling. Then eleven heavy thumps on the strings and drums lead to…Glorification of the Chosen One. This is a big, exciting dance with noisy horns and timpani and bass drum. Evocation of the Ancestors. The elders (the wise old men) arrive to majestic chords on wind and brass.Ritual Action of the Ancestors. We hear quiet, ticking chords and a duet for cor anglais and alto flute. Then trumpets and horns, and finally clarinets.Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One. The “Chosen One” dances herself to death. The music is very energetic, with very irregular rhythms and time signatures which keep changing almost every bar. The work ends in a huge climax.Source

Riot At the Premiere

The premiere of The Rite of Spring is perhaps the most notorious scandal in the history of music. The ballet famously caused a riot. The audience were so outraged by Stravinsky’s avant-garde score, and Nijinsky’s choreography, that many people thought it seemed like the work of a madman. Source

Contrary to popular belief it was not just the shock of hearing the music and the choreography that caused the riot at The Rite of Spring‘s premiere. At that time a typical Parisian ballet audience consisted of two diverse groups: the wealthy and fashionable set, who would be expecting to see a traditional performance with beautiful music, and a “Bohemian” group who were eager for something new. Conductor Pierre Monteux believed that the trouble began when these two groups, the pro and con factions, began attacking each other, and the orchestra: “Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on.”Source

By the time the first part of the ballet was over the police had already arrived and around 40 people had been arrested. Through all the disturbances the performance continued without interruption. The unrest receded significantly during Part II and at the end there were several curtain calls. “The work of a madman … sheer cacophony,” wrote the composer Puccini.Source

In his autobiography Stravinsky writes that the derisive laughter that greeted the first bars of the ‘Introduction’ to The Rite of Spring at the premiere disgusted him, and that he left the auditorium to watch the rest of the performance from the stage wings.Source

Stravinsky’s inspiration was still Russian folk tradition – after various primitive rituals celebrating the advent of spring, a young girl is chosen as a sacrificial victim and dances herself to death. Musically his avant-garde score for The Rite of Spring contradicted every rule. The score contains many novel features for its time including experiments in tonality, metre, rhythm, stress and dissonance, i.e. combinations of notes which don’t make normal harmonic sense. The sounds are often deliberately harsh, right from opening Lithuanian folk melody, and the music is rhythmically complex in a completely unprecedented way. At a deeper level the music negates the very thing that for most people gives it meaning: the expression of human feelings. As Stravinsky put it, “There are simply no regions for soul-searching in The Rite of Spring”.Source

“I was guided by no system whatever in Le Sacre du Printemps,” wrote Igor Stravinsky in 1961. “I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed.”Source

Then there was the dance choreographed by Nijinsky which, according to some observers, was what really shocked the audience at The Rite of Spring‘s premiere. Stravinsky (who did not like the choreography) described the dancers as a row of “knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down” who jerked rather than danced. Their heavy steps were a world away from traditional elegant ballet.Source

A year later, when the score was performed in Paris as a concert piece for the first time, Stravinsky was carried on the shoulders of his fans in triumph and there were huge ovations. Although designed as a work for the stage commentators broadly agree that The Rite of Spring has had a greater impact in the concert hall.Source

Pina Bausch’s Choreography

Many choreographers after Ninjinsky choreographed the Sacre du printemps. I saw -on film- Pina Basch’s version which completely enthralled me and contributed to anchor my fascination with the musical piece.

On a stage covered in dirt, dancers honored the advent of spring and engaged in rituals of celebration and competition. A young woman was chosen as the sacrificial victim who must dance herself to death. In Bausch’s rendering of The Rite of Spring, the ballet is also a battle of the sexes. Men and women gathered in bands, sometimes antagonistic, sometimes tender, until the necessary choosing—by fate—of the one to be sacrificed. Raw, stark, and deeply theatrical, the choreography is atavistic in its deep, pulsing pliés à la second and in its darting, panicked pacing. It spoke to me on a visceral level. Here was a world far from the tame, codified world of ballet. Instead, there was wild fear, lust, despair, anger. There was an overall sense of disquiet embedded in the music and unleashed from deep within the dancers—in the pleading reach of limbs, the anguish of an arched back, the herdlike stamping of feet and, due to the strenuous nature of the dance, in the panting. And the dirt. So much dirt. Dirt clinging to clavicles, streaked across torsos and smudged, war paint–like, along shoulders, brows, cheekbones and lips. It seemed as if Bausch had communed with our ancient ancestors and brought all their primal fury into the modern world.

Vanessa Manko, Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring

Sources and more

Leave a Reply