Album review: Antal Dorati/Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

The marriage of Apollo and Dionysus is a happy one indeed.

Genre: Classical (late Romantic/early Modernist)
Country: United States
Release date: 1960 (reissued on vinyl April 14, 2008)
Label: Mercury Living Presence (reissued by Speakers Corner Records)
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: SR90253

Antal Dorati – conductor
with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra


The Adoration of the Earth



The Augurs of Spring (Dances of the Young Girls)



Ritual of Abduction



Spring Rounds



Ritual of the Rival Tribes



Procession of the Sage



Kiss of the Earth



Dance of the Earth



The Sacrifice



Mystic Circles of the Young Girls



Glorification of the Chosen One



Evocation of the Ancestors



Ritual Dance of the Ancestors



Sacrificial Dance


Total running time:


In his masterpiece The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake explored the relationship between spirituality and art, and the myth, central to nearly all traditional Western forms of religion and philosophy, of the universe being based on pairs of opposites—light and dark, living and dead, natural and artificial, male and female, almost inevitably with an implied hierarchy between the two opposites. Anticipating the both the dialectics of Hegel and Marx and the postmodernist movement that arose over a century later, The Marriage of Hell attacks these dichotomies and shows how both sides of a dichotomy are actually bound up with and dependent on one another, and thus can be reconciled to reach a greater truth. In the world of music, perhaps the most powerful and enduring dichotomy is between the Apollonian and Dionysian, between rational, mathematical order, maturity, and thoughtfulness on one hand and freewheeling chaos, youth, and impulsivity on the other. Most white musicians and critics in the English-speaking world reflexively accept this dichotomy and pick a side, whether they do so by writing a long essay on the superiority of serialism over “outdated” tonality and titling it Who Cares if They Listen? like Milton Babbitt or by scrawling diagrams of three basic guitar chords and instructing the reader to “now form a band” like Tony Moon. The problem is that this distinction is complete nonsense, and The Rite of Spring is one of the most powerful antidotes to this sort of thinking ever conceived.

Classical music, of course, has been the standard-bearer of Apollonian ideals for centuries, and the academic establishment has preferred to keep it exclusively so. But anyone who has heard a full-sized symphony orchestra at full tilt can testify to its raw, overwhelming, Dionysian power, a power that can leave the listener completely overwhelmed. Stravinsky’s famous trilogy of ballets, starting with Firebird and ending with The Rite of Spring, explored intense, often violent emotions, and The Rite of Spring is by far the most extreme in this regard. Metalheads love to make (usually spurious) claims of classical influence/ancestry for their favorite bands, but if any piece of classical music is “metal”, it’s this one—there’s little of the delicate, wispy atmospherics and long crescendos and decrescendos of a lot of Late Romantic music but rather a ceaseless churn of new ideas marked by sudden changes in tempo, key, meter, or a combination of them.

Furthermore, Stravinsky made this churn even more intense by not only having very dense polyphony, but also polyrhythms, polymeter, and even polytonality—multiple keys at the same time, which had been played with by a few composers before, but never seriously explored. Even when things are in only one key, Stravinsky often obfuscates it with hordes of out-of-key notes. Every so often the music will resolve to a prominent melody with a steady rhythm and harmony, but that’s only a breather before the next assault. The music seems to dissolve and recoalesce and dissolve again. Schoenberg and the other serialists were right that the traditional rules of tonality were limited, but the solution was not to discard it altogether and try to reinvent orchestral music from scratch.

Though on the surface it might seem neat and interconnected and organized, tonality was not invented like twelve-tone technique; it was the confluence of several traditions from Europe and the Mediterranean world, stretching all the way back to Ancient Egypt. It was not just a logical system but an emotional one, with chords, intervals, keys, and textures organized as much by how they affect the listener as much as mathematical relationships. Schoenberg chose to bury it; Stravinsky instead chose to extend it, and by embracing tonal ambiguity and conflict within the basic framework of tonality, introduced a new palette of emotions that were previously almost inexpressible through music. The conflict of juxtaposed keys and scales is heard by the listener as emotional conflict, and creates the mood of dread, horror, violence, and impending doom that suffuses this piece. If it’s seen live with Nijinsky’s choreography and costumes as the original Paris audience saw it, the mood becomes even more pronounced with the deliberately grotesque costumes and movements and dancers pretending to faint, strike each other, and quiver in fear. Classical music was supposed to be polite, restrained, reserved; The Rite of Spring is a tone painting of paroxysmal religious ecstasy and human sacrifice, with the sounds and sights to match.

And there was no more apropos time for such an awful scene than 1913, on the eve of World War I, up to that point the most deadly conflict in human history and the beginning of the thirty-year self-immolation of Europe’s old empires that climaxed with the Second World War. The grim triad of nationalism, racism, and high modernism that overtook Europe at the beginning of the century created a nihilistic destructive animus that would consume upwards of a hundred million human souls by the time it burned itself out at the end of the 1940s, an animus that Stravinsky, perhaps unconsciously, picked up on and amplified into a powerful musical statement. Make no mistake, for all the surface imagery of Russian paganism and the shopworn platitudes of “atavistic savagery”, The Rite of Spring is absolutely capital-M Modern, a piece of music in, of, and about the 20th century. It heartily embraces the dazzling complexity and massive scale afforded to music by industrial civilization while screaming in horror at the material, moral, and mortal cost of it (Stravinsky fled Russia for ever-neutral Switzerland rather than be forced to take a side in World War I; Schoenberg on the other hand willingly and gleefully surrendered to war hysteria, writing in his journal, “Now comes the reckoning! Now we will throw these mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God!”).

Like all artists, poets, philosophers, and visionaries who saw their societies destroying themselves and cried out, in whatever medium most suited them, against the madness of the era, Stravinsky faced rebuke and rejection from the respected and powerful in the musical establishment. Most critics who heard it wrote reviews that ranged from scathing to outright hysterical; one wag from The Times, who must have thought himself very clever, proffered the suggestion that Stravinsky write his next composition for nothing but drums. Though Stravinsky’s innovations were taken up by jazz, rock, fusion, and other musical scenes who sought to build a bridge between “low” and “high” music (only to find the gates of the ivory tower barred and Robert Christgau strutting about on the ramparts making masturbation jokes), the academy instead went all-in on atonal music. The Rite of Spring was quite popular among working- and middle-class audiences in the cheap seats, which of course only made it even more offensive than the snobs and fossils who considered themselves the arbiters of what was capital-A Art and what was not, the sort of people who now squirrel the original copies of Marcel Duchamp’s infamous urinal installation Fountain in museums and spend fortunes on insurance and security, thereby (as Brian Eno noted after publicly urinating on the copy at the Museum of Modern Art in 1993) missing the entire point of Fountain in the first place. Serialism was ascendant and even Stravinsky himself seemed to give up soon thereafter and devote the rest of his years first to formulaic, nostalgic neo-classical compositions before ultimately jumping on the atonal bandwagon himself, but audiences for new music disappeared, and soon classical music was truly classical—culturally dead. The Rite of Spring saw the end coming and offered an alternative way forward, but too late.

Just about the least bizarre thing you will witness in a Nijinsky production of this ballet.

The performance reviewed here, though it can’t quite deliver the full intended effect of the composition because of its lack of Nijinsky’s choreography (or any visual element at all, for that matter), is excellent, tightly played but lacking the excessive polish common in modern renditions (as well as von Karajan’s sugary 1964 and 1977 renditions). Stravinsky deliberately used extended ranges and other techniques largely foreign to musicians of the early 20th century in The Rite of Spring to give raw, aggressive, sometimes deliberately ugly timbres for emotional effect; it is common for more recent recordings by orchestras used to hyper-technical modernist compositions to play these parts too smoothly and lose the intended atmosphere (litmus test: if the bassoon solo at the beginning sounds like a “normal” bassoon, it’s being played wrong). The harsh, hostile textures are captured brilliantly by the famous Mercury Living Presence label, and the Speakers Corner reissue does the original justice, with my only complaint being that some of the text near the right margin in the liner notes on the back cover is cut off by a printing error. Overall this is the best performance of Rite I’ve ever heard—the only one that’s “just right” in every respect without being too fast, too slow, too clean, too lo-fi, etc. There are a few earlier recordings but no mono recording from the ‘50s and earlier holds a candle to the early stereo renditions—the technology to make classical music sound the way it was meant to just didn’t exist until this album came around at the turn of the 1960s.

That said, just because modern professional orchestras, inundated in a glut of overqualified players and with a hundred years of The Rite of Spring circulating around the repertoire, make Rite look a little too easy doesn’t mean it is easy, either to play or fully understand. Ordinary folks can get lost in the bombast and power of it all, but it takes a strong musical background and many listens to really get to know this piece. It rewards careful, repeated listening of multiple renditions and contains enough hidden depths and musical secrets to remain engaging for a lifetime. Though prog-rockers, jazz musicians, and avant-gardists have long been drawn to cover classical songs, they have, tellingly, avoided The Rite of Spring despite its predecessor Firebird being a popular target for electrification (a few have tried, but they are no-names and their renditions were drastically simplifed and cut down). There is just too much going on for four to seven rock musicians to even wrap their heads around—absurdly complex multilayered textures, enough time signature changes for three Dream Theater albums, and nary an opportunity for a catchy groove in sight.

The Rite of Spring is too unified in its conception and structure to be taken as a set of “songs”, so it’s impossible to pick out any part as “the best” without the presence of the others to contextualize it. That said, it is presented in two acts (just the right size for each to fit on one side of an LP record, coincidentally) and the second half is the stronger of the two. While the first side is somewhat meandering until “Procession of the Sage” through “The Dance of the Earth” tie it all together, the second side is far more tightly plotted, the tension and sense of godly/godlike (depending on whether you intepret the ritual as a literal offering to a god or a metaphor for modernity running out of control) power slowly ratcheting up and up and up. Even when the music pulls back, it is only a lull before it returns in even greater force. “Sacrificial Dance” strikes me as a far more convincing portrayal of divine power and majesty than any Christian hymn; something as great and transcendent as a god would, should, must be utterly terrifying and intimidating to be in the presence of, not some comforting Daddy figure. The Chosen One dances on and on, faster and faster, in asymmetrical, constantly changing rhythms that are not her own, impelled by a will greater than hers (pity the poor girl who has to remember the dance steps and count out the fifty-plus time signatures used in a stage rendition!), burning away her own life as the god’s power surges through her. Ancient Bronze and Iron age pagans believed in and did many terrible things (one of the reasons for Christianity’s success was that, as stifling as hardcore Christianity is for women, Greco-Roman paganism was worse, and they thus embraced the “Good News” in huge numbers), but they always seemed more honest to themselves about reality and the world, with no need to rationalize away the pain of human existence with stories of a cosmic master plan of a blissful hereafter, and the ancestral memory of this way of thinking, still active in some remote parts of Russia in the early 20th century, comes through loud and clear in The Rite of Spring.

That’s not to say there is anything wrong with the first side, and people who love complex arrangements will find much to chew on there, but it just doesn’t have the same impact without the thematic through-line of the sacrifice. This act especially benefits from familiarity with Nijinsky’s stage treatment, as it helps tie the rather dry written accounts of the program to the music in a way far more powerful than the pale prose of a Wikipedia page or an LP’s liner notes. On the other hand, lovers of melody might find this act more to their liking than the second—while the condemnations of Rite as an amelodic abandonment of the eternal principles of beautiful music that were issued in the 1910s were wildly off base, their basic charge of melody being sacrificed for the advancement of rhythm is largely correct, especially in the second act, where melodies are broken down into fragments of three to seven notes to facilitate the constant changing of rhythm and meter required by the “Sacrificial Dance” and preliminary rituals. On this side, there are more complete melodies of up to several bars, some sweet, some acidic, but all using unusual note choices and scales to make them feel not quite comfortable in their key. It’s far from “normal” late Romantic music, but it still stands with one foot in the nineteenth century as it sets the stage for the more daring and aggressive music to follow in the second act.

Should you buy this record? I would answer with an unqualified “yes” to anyone with any interest in classical music, as well as fans of more erudite modern music, but I also think listeners should seek out a video rendition with the original Nijinsky choreography, my favorite being the centennial 2013 version performed by the very same Ballets Russes company that handled the premiere; its dancing is a bit awkward and “behind” the actual meter compared to the 1980s Joffrey Ballet rendition, but the video and sound quality is much higher, as is the quality of the musical performance. The Rite of Spring is a masterwork of classical music and perhaps the last truly great composition for symphony orchestra, but it only reaches its full majesty in the combination of sight and sound, of orchestra pit and ballet stage.

At one time, The Rite of Spring could have been a salvation for classical music, a way out of the late Romantic rut of second-rate tone poems and fatuous fantasias that plagued the beginning of the century without throwing the tonal baby out with the Romantic bathwater, but not now. The Weltgeist moved on a hundred years ago, and The Rite of Spring can only stand as a testament to what could have been if the winds of history had blown another way. Classical music is dead, but what better epitaph than this? Apollo and Dionysus raise their wine gourds together, and the Dance of the Earth rages on and on and on.

Rating: 97%

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