My wife and I recently attended the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This famous proto-modernist work is one of the most popular and controversial pieces of music of all time. Originally conceived as a ballet, the work has achieved fame for its incredible rejection of classical ideas of tonality and key signature. The first performance in Paris caused a famous riot, as patrons reacted violently against the shocking musical motifs and decidedly non-traditional dancing. Although the reports of this hostile response may be embellished, it is hard not to think that the music itself must have been insanely challenging for an unprepared audience. The structure of the piece refers to a pagan ritual, the image of which (like all good inspiration), came to Stravinsky randomly in “a fleeting vision”: a young girl dances herself to death during a pagan ceremony to the god of spring, the god of destruction and rebirth.
Describing the sonic aspects of the piece, one defaults into language that is equal parts apocalyptic furor and demented fantasy. The piece operates in at least two different keys simultaneously (a concept known as “bi-tonality”), giving the musical material at the core a sort of lush dissonance. Pounding off-centre rhythms combine with blaring horns and lurching strings. Dynamic swells build and disappear, only to return unannounced in huge molten blasts that tear away at each other like beasts attacking each other. In the quieter moments, the music portrays a magical intimacy, weaving delicate and amorphous little melodies around each, floating slowly into the night sky like tiny glowing cinders. The bass thrums menacingly throughout, shadows dancing near the fire’s edge. The focus required of the musicians in order to navigate this thorny musical terrain is immense, and the TSO rose admirably to the challenge. Between the intense poly-rhythmic interplay and the close-voiced, dissonant chords, just keeping track of the score must be a challenge.
I would be remiss at this point if I didn’t mention two notable aspects of the orchestra for this piece. First off, the ensemble is enormous: 99 players in all. This group also included 4 percussionists, ranging from timpani and bass drum, to gongs and triangles and tambourines. The clatter and boom generated by this augmented instrumentation is so incredibly powerful as to seem almost god-like; fitting then for a piece that attempts to simulate the mysterious power of nature.
Stravinsky supposedly composed using a sort of Dadaist technique. He’d compose short sections and reassemble them in a new form, which results in a layered fragmentation that reveals itself in surprising ways. Throughout the piece you hear fragments float by or whip past, fragments that repeat and re-assemble themselves in new ways. The up tempo sections crash to a halt or crumble up into heaps, while the slower sections lurch and lunge towards beauty rather than embodying it.
The final movement is a glorious and terrifying study in the power of sheer sound. Guest conductor Krzysztof Urbański visibly embodied the chaos at hand, flailing his arms as if wrestling with a ghost. Atop a steadily mounting ostinato, the melodies screech further skyward. In the story this final section is where the young girl dances herself into death, and indeed the careening music suggests a demented and single-minded pursuit of the grave. The horns blast, the drums pound, the strings grind and screech, and then it all ends with a wall of dissonance that is truly shocking.
The sacrifice completed, we returned to the cool spring evening stunned and speechless. The TSO performed this difficult and complex piece beautifully, wringing beauty and subtlety from the manic and brutal material. This is challenging art of the highest order, and with their masterful performance, the TSO was able to bring it to the masses, without any rioting.