Getting Rite, Right

“The Rite of Spring” (Le Sacre du Printemps) is the most wonderful piece of music. Composed in 1913 by Russian Composer Igor Stravinsky.

I am so glad it is part of the Edexcel Anthology and I think it is a great piece for students to really get their teeth into. In terms of the exam it is something exciting to listen to and is packed full of so much great stuff.

So where do we start?

Well I always like to start with a clear line of argument and there are a number of different angles we can take:

  1. It is a piece of music for dance – just like the Cage set work and I guess you could link it to Debussy and the Habanera influence
  2. It is Avant Garde with a number of arresting features
  3. It is a piece that sought to take musicians and listeners in a new direction.

When students learn this piece they need to be thinking along these lines in order to really appreciate and understand the music. They also need a clear line of argument for their essay – Edexcel that is.

The thing about this piece is that it is massive, huge, enormous! It is a mountain of a piece and students need to approach it in the right way. It works quite well to break it down into each element and then consider how Stravinsky takes that element in a new direction.

A possible Essay introduction:

“The Rite of Spring was composed in 1913 by Stravinsky. It was a piece of music written for Ballet and the first audience was shocked by its heavy use of dissonance and its offensive choreography. And yet the music was highly innovative, exploring new directions in instrumental tone colours and requiring a huge orchestra. It contains a number of arresting features and is often performed as an orchestral piece without the then controversial ballet. The Rite of Spring is often regarded as one of the great turning points in music and in this essay I am going to discuss how Stravinsky harnessed the full power of the orchestra to create a piece that really did explore new directions in music.”

Texture

If we are going to give it a general name then we would say that this piece is Polyphonic, with fragments of motifs and melodies combined to great the gradually evolving texture. If you listen to the Introduction then you quickly get a sense of this evolution of fragmentary ideas from the Monophonic opening to the 4 part texture just after figure 3. Texture is used to create a sense of build up and then a sense of power just before Figure 12, where we have a highly polyphonic segment of music.

But he doesn’t avoid Homophony and the opening of the Augurs is homophonic with big dance-like chords. He also uses Ostinato & Counter-Melody textures in the piece.

His exploration of texture certainly does take the piece in new directions and he harnesses the power of texture by using to help create a fundamental sound. He combines it with other features and creates the textures that he wants rather than following conventions.

Melody

Stravinsky avoids using conventional approaches to melody. But you can’t just say that, you need to show the understanding that he has moved away from the kind of approach that a composer such as Mozart would have taken. Mozart in his Symphony No. 40 provides a clear melodic phrase, that is diatonic, balanced and structured by clear cadences. Mozart then develops this melody and then recapitulates it within a clear sonata structure. Stravinsky on the other hand uses small melodic ideas, that repeat in various parts and places, alongside Ostinato features and short fragments. He doesn’t entirely avoid the diatonic, with a lovely melody for horn in  “Augurs” (Fig. 25). IN taking music in a new direction, Stravinsky is concerned with sound and providing a soundtrack to a ballet that was in itself controversial and provocative. He created the sounds he wanted without the need for the traditional classical approach to melody.

And when discussing melody, lets not forget how incredible his opening Bassoon melody is – instantly recognisable and played on the Bassoon at a higher than normal pitch. Similar in some ways to the dreamlike & Melancholic opening of “Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune” by Debussy.

  • Short Motifs
  • Ostinato
  • Fragments
  • Repetition of short ideas
  • Folk Melodies from Russia & other Eastern European countries

 

Harmony & Tonality

You could say that Stravinsky embraced harmony & tonality, maybe more than the serialist composers of the time such as Schoenberg & Stockhausen. “Gesang der Junglinge” by Stockhausen is a great example of a piece that really is devoid of a sense of tonality – but I guess there are harmonic moments, just “unconventional” ones.

I think we will keep coming back to that idea of the “unconventional”, that is the new direction that music took – and Stravinsky, cage and Saariaho all took music in a new direction.

The Rite of Spring doesn’t have a clear tonal centre and there is never really any clear sense of key. It relies on dissonance and even suggestions of Bitonality in “Augurs”. And yet the opening Bassoon melody and the Horn melody we mentioned before are both Diatonic. Stravinsky also has some modal influences in the piece and these derive from his use of folk melodies – the Bassoon at the start uses an “Aelian” approach.

The “Chaos” at the end of the introduction uses chromatics and other tonal ideas, that when combined create a sense of the music being Atonal. There are multiple tonal elements in this wonderful, highly powerful section of the piece.

I don’t want to entirely replicate what is already in the Pearson notes, so I will avoid a detailed look at structure as that is all very clear in the notes. The main thing I want to stress in this blog is the need for a clear approach, thought the lens of those lines of argument. This piece is huge and we need to be clear that it achieves so much and moves music forward in a new direction. Stravinsky masterfully brings together the conventional with the unconventional and he gives us music that at first wouldn’t really seem like dance music. There are Wider Listening links to film music – think about the rhythms in Psycho. There are links also to John Cage & Saariaho who both avoided a number of conventions and focussed on sound. I love the Wider Listening suggestions that the exam board give:

Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gesang der Junglinge –  A clear lack of anything really conventional. fascinating to listen to, although not something you are likely to listen to a great deal for pleasure.

Pierre Boulez, Structures: 1a – This piece gives you a glimpse into the world of Atonal piano music. It has no real sense of melody and yet explores the full range and breadth of the piano. It is more about sound, pitch and rhythm than melody, harmony & tonality.

Peter Maxwell Davies, Eight Songs for a Mad King: Nos. 6‒8 – This is a fantastic for showing the exploitation of the human voice. A really good example of combining more conventional ideas with the unusual sounds that can be made by our voices.

These three are all worth a listen and will be great for Wider Listening in the exam.

 

 

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