The Rite of Spring is a ballet with music by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Its Russian title, Vesna svyashchennaya literally means Spring the Sacred – the English title is translated from the French that the work was premiered under, Le Sacre du printemps. It has the subtitle “Pictures from Pagan Russia”.
The work was composed between 1911 and 1913 for Sergei Diaghilev‘s Ballets Russes. It was premiered on May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Eysées in Paris and was conducted by Pierre Monteux. The same performers gave a production of the work in London later the same year. Its United States premiere was in 1924 in a concert (that is, non-staged) version.
At its premiere in Paris, there were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. This eventually degenerated into a near-riot, which has made it one of the most notorious premieres in music history. It has been suggested that the disruption was as much due to Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography and the overall scenario (which was about pagan sacrifice, rather than the usual genteel ballet themes) as it was to Stravinsky’s frequently brutal and violent music.
Stravinsky’s music is harmonically adventurous, with an emphasis on dissonance used for its own sake. Rhythmically, it is similarly harsh, with a number of sections having constantly changing time signatures and unpredictable off-beat accents.
The work is divided into two parts with the following scenes:
Part I: Adoration of the Earth
- Auguries of Spring (Dances of the Young Girls)
- Mock Abduction
- Spring Khorovod (Round Dance)
- Games of the Rival Clans
- Procession of the Wise Elder
- Adoration of the Earth (the Wise Elder)
- Dance of the Earth
Part II: The Sacrifice
- Mystical Circles of Young Girls
- Glorification of the Chosen Victim
- The Summoning of the Ancients
- Ritual of the Ancients
- Sacrificial Dance (the Chosen Victim)
The piece is scored for a large orchestra, including eight French horns, four trumpets, a piccolo trumpet and a bass trumpet, three trombones, two tubas and large woodwind, string and percussion sections. Stravinsky generates a wide variety of timbres from this ensemble, beginning the ballet with a very quiet and high bassoon solo, and ending with a frenzied dance played by the whole orchestra.
Stravinsky made a version of the score for piano four hands (that is, two people playing at one piano), and it was in this form that the piece was first published (in 1913, the full score not being published until 1921). Due to the disruption caused by World War I, there were few performances of the work in the years following its composition, which made this arrangement the main way in which people got to know the piece. This version is still performed quite frequently today.
However, most people will have met the Rite of Spring through Walt Disney’s Fantasia, a 1941 animated movie showing imaginative illustrations to classical music. The Rite of Spring is the fourth piece to be played, illustrated by a “a pageant, as the story of the growth of life on Earth” according to the narrator. The sequence shows the beginning of simple life forms, evolution up to the dinosaurs, and their eventual destruction. The movie was not considered successful at the time, but has since been hailed as an ambitious and talented use of animation for “serious” art.