First off, let me just say WOW. Igor Stravinsky really knew what he was doing, and it just goes to show that taking risks can turn out great. Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” is a piece so powerful and distinct, but also completely adaptable and versatile. Written as a ballet about Russian paganism and human sacrifice, the piece is unmistakable for its sense of barbaric intensity. The pounding, polyrhythmic drums and HARSH dissonance combine so perfectly that if one knew the plot of the ballet, they could imagine the story by the music alone without ever seeing a single dancer.
At the same time, the piece can be used in different contexts and still fit the bill. An abridged and altered version of “The Rite of Spring” was used in Disney’s Fantasia (the 1940 version, not the piece of crap released in 2000). In it, the piece was matched up with bright colors and animations that depicted the dawn of time. It begins with flashes of color, washing together and fading away, like the first signs of life swimming in primordial soup. Later the piece shows the rise and fall of the dinosaurs–meteors come crashing down to the earth, killing the giant creatures as the music’s controlled chaos takes off. While Stravinsky himself called Disney’s interpretation execrable, I think it fits.
There have been tons of ballets set to “The Rite of Spring,” and each one has its own distinct flavor. Having watched several snippets of these dances on youtube, I’m taken aback by how many stories the song can tell. Sure, each dance is connected through a thread of primitiveness that often borders on the erotic, but there is definitely something different about each one. In some dances, the human is emphasized. In others, the choreographer took a more animalistic approach. Some chose to use softer movements while others jerk around in a way that almost seems spasmodic. Try using Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” to tell more than one story. It just doesn’t really work that way.
What’s also distinctive about “The Rite of Spring” is that the conductors and players of the piece are in charge of making their own connections to convey a particular feeling. When Leonard Bernstein was directing a student orchestra in 1987, he had an incredible way of using anecdote and physical expression to show the students what he wanted. Of course, if anyone can do that, it’s him–Bernstein’s conducting made even a simple, two-octave, C-major scale sound so powerful and masterful. His use of dynamics and tempo turned what is usually the most boring part of music into something ripe with emotion. Through his conducting, Bernstein explains that a level of virtuosity is necessary in playing but it’s not enough. There is a level of raw emotion that each person needs to feel if they want to portray the piece’s story to its fullest.
Articulating the way music can make a person feel is not an easy task. Words aren’t always enough for Bernstein, and his conducting and explanations are full of guttural noises, jerky and smooth arm motions, and a wide range of facial expressions. His face contorts as the music changes–he grimaces, he smiles, and he raises his brows so high they look as if they might pop off of his face. At times he punches and claws at the air like an animal, and one orchestra member commented on his “erotic dancing” (how a man in his 70s can dance erotically is beyond me, but clearly it got the kid thinking, and that was the point). The fact is, music is visceral, and it seems to almost possess and pass through Bernstein as he conducts. Personally, I think that kind of reaction is necessary for all truly successful music-making. If you aren’t really feeling it, then you aren’t really playing it as hard or as well as you can. There’s rarely a time in one’s life where one can experience something that is both absolutely gut-wrenching and completely beautiful, but “The Rite of Spring” seems to evoke these paradoxical feelings, and it happens without mercy.