harbingers of spring

The Rite of Spring

This article is about the ballet music. For the emo/hardcore band, see Rites of Spring

The Rite of Spring, commonly referred to by its original French title, Le Sacre du Printemps (Russian: Весна священная, Vesna svjaščennaja) is a ballet with music by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, original choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, and original set design and costumes by archaeologist and painter Nicholas Roerich, all under impressario Serge Diaghilev. The music is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest, most influential, and reproduced compositions in history. It is iconic for 20th century classical or avant garde European music, with innovative complex rhythmic structures, timbres, and use of dissonance. The scandal of a riot at its 1913 premier, caused by its innovative technique and content, made it one of the most internationally well known and controversial works in performance history.

Place in History

The music for Le Sacre du Printemps is regarded as one of the pinnacles of human intellectual achievement. Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, in his Six Talks at Harvard, said of one passage, “That page is sixty years old, but it’s never been topped for sophisticated handling of primitive rhythms…”, and of the work as a whole, “… it’s also got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms and whatever else you care to name.”


While the Russian title literally means "Sacred Spring", the English title is based on the French title under which the work was premiered, although sacre is more precisely translated as "consecration". It has the subtitle "Pictures from Pagan Russia" (French: Tableaux de la Russie païenne).

Composition and critical reception

After coming up with the idea for the piece in 1910 from a fantasy vision of pagan ritual (his fleeting vision of a young girl dancing herself to death) while composing The Firebird, Stravinsky began forming sketches and ideas for the piece, enlisting the help of archaeologist and folklorist Nikolai Roerich. Though he was sidetracked for a year while he worked on Petrushka (which he intended to be a light burlesque as a relief from the orchestrally-intense work already in progress), The Rite of Spring was composed between 1912 and 1913 for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Roerich was an integral part of the creation of the work, drawing from scenes of historical rites for inspiration; Stravinsky referred to the work-in-progress as "our child". After undergoing revisions almost up until the very day of its first performance, it was premiered on May 29 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris and was conducted by Pierre Monteux. Stravinsky would later write that a better translation to English would have been "The Coronation of Spring".

The Ballets Russes staged the first performance. The intensely rhythmic score and primitive scenario—a setting of scenes from pagan Russia—shocked audiences more accustomed to the demure conventions of classical ballet. Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography was a radical departure from classical ballet. Stravinsky would later write in his autobiography of the process of working with Nijinsky on the choreography, stating that "the poor boy knew nothing of music" and that Nijinsky "had been saddled with a task beyond his capacity. While Stravinsky praised Nijinsky's amazing dance talent, he was frustrated working with him on choreography. This frustration was reciprocated by Nijinsky with regard to Stravinsky's patronizing attitude: " much time is wasted as Stravinsky thinks he is the only one who knows anything about music. In working with me he explains the value of the black notes, the white notes, of quavers and semiquavers, as though I had never studied music at all...I wish he would talk more about his music for Sacre, and not give a lecture on the beginning theory of music."

The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start with the opening bassoon solo, the audience began to boo loudly due to the slight discord in the background notes behind the bassoon's opening melody. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance, and Stravinsky himself was so upset on account of its reception that he fled the theater in mid-scene, reportedly crying. Fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the première (though Stravinsky later said "I do not know who invented the story that he was present at, but soon walked out, of the premiere.") allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet's opening bars.

Stravinsky ran backstage, where Diaghilev was turning the lights on and off in an attempt to try to calm the audience. Nijinsky stood on a chair, leaned out (far enough that Stravinsky had to grab his coat-tail), and shouted counts to the dancers, who were unable to hear the orchestra (this was challenging because Russian numbers are polysyllabic above ten, such as eighteen: vosemnadsat).

Although Nijinsky and Stravinsky were despondent, Diaghilev (a Russian art critic as well as the ballet's impresario) commented that the scandal was "just what I wanted". The music and choreography were considered barbaric and sexual and are also often noted as being the primary factors for the cause of the riot, but many political and social tensions surrounding the premiere contributed to the backlash as well.

The ballet completed its run of seven performances amid controversy, but experienced no further disruption. The same performers gave a production of the work in London later the same year. Both Stravinsky and Nijinsky continued to work, but neither created pieces in this percussive and intense style again. The United States premiere was in 1924 in a concert (that is, non-staged) version.

Stravinsky composed a piano four-hands version before finishing the orchestral score. The composer was continually revising the work for both musical and practical reasons, even after the premiere and well into ensuing years. The transcription for piano four-hands was performed with Debussy; since Stravinsky composed the Rite, as with his other works, at the piano, it is natural that he worked on the piano version of the work concurrently with the full orchestral score. It was in this form that the piece was first published (in 1913, the full score not being published until 1921 by Editions Russe de Musique). Owing 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, as it does not require the massive forces of the full orchestral version.

Stravinsky also made two arrangements of the Rite for player piano. In late 1915, the Aeolian Company in London asked for permission to issue both the Rite and Petrushka on piano roll, and by early 1918 the composer had made several sketches to be used in the more complex passages. Again owing to the war, the work of transcribing the rolls dragged on, and only the Rite was ever issued by Aeolian on standard Pianola rolls, and this not until late 1921, by which time Stravinsky had completed a far more comprehensive re-composition of the work for the Pleyela, the brand of player piano manufactured by Pleyel in Paris.

The Pleyela/Pianola master rolls were not recorded using a "recording piano" played by a performer in real time, but were instead true "pianola" rolls, cut mechanically/graphically, free from any constraints imposed by the ability of the player. As musicologist William Malloch has noted, on these rolls the final section is at a considerably faster tempo, relative to the rest of the composition, than in the generally-used orchestral score. Malloch further opines, based upon this evidence, the composer's revisions of the orchestral score, and a limited number of very early phonographic recordings of performances, that Stravinsky originally intended the faster tempo, but found that significant numbers of orchestral players at the time were simply unable to manage the rhythmic complexity of the section at that tempo, and accordingly revised the tempo markings downward in later revisions. The Zander recording includes both the pianola version, and the orchestral Rite with the faster tempo restored to the final section.

In 1994–95, The Rite of Spring was transcribed for large symphonic wind ensemble by Merlin Patterson. This transcription was premiered in April 1995 by The University of Houston Wind Ensemble conducted by Eddie Green in the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas. Patterson's transcription has subsequently been performed by major university and professional wind bands including the Dallas Wind Symphony, Jerry Junkin, conductor.


The Rite of Spring is a series of episodes depicting a wild pagan spring ritual: "... the wise elders are seated in a circle and are observing the dance before death of the girl whom they are offering as a sacrifice to the god of Spring in order to gain his benevolence," said Stravinsky, of the imagery that prompted the genesis of the work. Though the music is capable of standing alone, and was a great success in the concert hall, in conception it is inextricably tied to the action on stage. The Rite is divided into two parts with the following scenes (there are many different English translations of the original titles; the ones given are Stravinsky's preferred wording followed by the original French in parenthesis):

Part I: Adoration of the Earth

  • Introduction
  • The Augurs of Spring (Dances of the Young Girls) (Les augures printaniers, Danses des adolescentes)
  • Ritual of Abduction (Jeu du rapt)
  • Spring Rounds (Round Dance) (Rondes printanières)
  • Ritual of the Rival Tribes (Jeu des cités rivales)
  • Procession of the Sage (Cortège du sage)
  • The Sage (Adoration of the Earth) (Le sage)
  • Dance of the Earth (Danse de la terre)

Part II: The Sacrifice

  • Introduction
  • Mystic Circles of the Young Girls (Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes)
  • The Glorification of the Chosen One (Glorification de l'Élue)
  • Evocation of the Ancestors (Évocation des ancêtres)
  • Ritual Action of the Ancestors (Action rituelle des ancêtres)
  • Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One) (Danse sacrale (l'Élue))

Though the melodies draw upon folklike themes designed to evoke the feeling of songs passed down from ancient time, the only tune Stravinsky acknowledged to be directly drawn from previously-existing folk melody is the opening, first heard played by the solo bassoon. Several other themes, however, have been shown to have a striking similarity to folk tunes appearing in the Juskiewicz anthology of Lithuanian folk songs.

Musical characteristics

Stravinsky's music is harmonically adventurous, with an emphasis on dissonance for the purposes of color and musical energy. Rhythmically, it is similarly adventurous, with a number of sections having constantly changing time signatures and unpredictable off-beat accents. Stravinsky revitalizes rhythm in The Rite of Spring by using asymmetrical rhythm, percussive use of dissonance, polyrhythms, polytonality, layering of ostinati (repeated ideas) and melodic fragments to create complex webs of interactive lines, and is influenced by primitivism (specifically, West African tribal art). An example of primitivism can be seen below (from the opening of the final section, the "Sacrificial Dance"):

According to George Perle (1977 quoted in 1990) the "intersecting of inherently non-symmetrical diatonic elements with inherently non-diatonic symmetrical elements seems...the defining principle of the musical language of Le Sacre and the source of the unparalleled tension and conflicted energy of the work". This idea is elaborated more fully by Van Den Toorn, who gives a detailed analysis of the pitch structure of the piece in terms of diatonically-derived tetrachords intersecting with symmetrical 'partitions' of the octatonic scale.

Further, "the diatonicism of Le Sacre du printemps should not be understood in the restrictive sense of the major/minor system, but in terms of something more basic. Like the symmetrical partitionings of the twelve-tone scale in Le Sacre, its diatonicism may also be explained in terms of interval cycles--more simply and coherently, in fact, than in terms of the traditional modes and scales. With the single exception of interval[-class] 5, every interval[-class] from 1 through 6 will partition the space of an octave into equal segments. A seven-note segment of the interval-5 cycle [C5], telescoped into the compass of an octave, divides the octave into unequal intervals--'whole-steps' and 'half-steps'".

The boundary of what Perle considers the principal theme from the Introduction, following the solo bassoon head motif in measures 1-3, is a symmetrical tritone divided by minor thirds, making an interval-3 cycle (C 3) (p. 19). Like Varese's Density 21.5, "it partitioned the interval of a tritone into two minor thirds and differentiated these by twice filling in the span of the upper third--first chromatically and then with a single passing note--and leaving the lower third open". The theme repeats "truncated" in 7-9, the head motif only in 13, and then fully, transposed down a half step, fifty three measures later, 66, at the end of the movement with "cb-bb-ab instead of the head motif's c-b-a" (p. 81-82).

Like Density 21.5, it "implies the complete representation of each partition of the C3 interval cycle." C30 begins in the head motif's c-b-a and is completed by the main theme which immediately follows (see example above). However, "the otherwise atonal C 3 cycle is initiated by a minor third that is plainly diatonic and tonal" (p. 83). Thus The Rite of Spring has something in common with No. 33 of Bartok's 44 Violin Duets, "Song of the Harvest", which, "juxtaposes tonal and atonal interpretations of the same perfect-4th tetrachord" (p. 86).

One of the reasons for the enduring celebrity of The Rite of Spring is because the work has been the constant subject of discussion and analysis by musicologists and music theorists. Allen Forte, Pierre Boulez and Van den Toorn have given analyses of the work's structure in terms of abstract relations of rhythm and pitch, arguing for a modernist understanding of its musical language. On the other hand, Richard Taruskin's monumental study of Stravinsky's early music gives an explanation of the musical characteristics as fundamentally and directly derived from Russian folk music


The Rite of Spring is scored for an unusually large orchestra consisting of the following: Woodwinds:
3 Flutes (3rd doubling Piccolo 2)
Alto Flute
4 Oboes (4th doubling English Horn 2)
English Horn
Clarinet in E-flat and D
3 Clarinets in B-flat, A (3rd doubling Bass Clarinet 2)
Bass Clarinet
4 Bassoons (4th doubling Contrabassoon 2)
8 Horns in F (7th and 8th doubling Tenor Tubas in B-flat)
Trumpet in D
4 Trumpets in C (4th doubling Bass Trumpet in E-flat)
3 Trombones
2 Tubas
Timpani (2 players, one with 5 drums, the other with 4 including a Piccolo Timpani)
Bass Drum
Crotales (antique cymbals) in A-flat and B-flat
Violins I, II
Double Basses

Stravinsky scored the instruments of the orchestra in unusual and uncomfortable sounding registers (ranges) in the Rite of Spring, often as an attempt to emulate the strained sounds of untrained village voices. The most notable instance of this is heard in the opening bassoon solo which reaches to the highest notes of the instrument's range. The composer also called for instruments that, before the Rite of Spring, had rarely been scored for in orchestral music, including the alto flute, piccolo trumpet, bass trumpet, Wagner tuba, and güiro. The use of these instruments, combined with the aforementioned manipulation of instrumental ranges, gave the piece a distinctive sound.

Aaron Copland, in his 1951–52 Charles Eliot Norton lectures, characterized the Rite of Spring as the foremost orchestral achievement of the 20th century.

Reconstruction of Ballet

Although Nijinsky's choreography was very poorly preserved, this choreography and Roerich's costuming and set design were reconstructed by dance historian Millicent Hodson, art historian Kenneth Archer, and choreographer Robert Joffrey, for performance by the Joffrey Ballet from 1987-89.

Influence on Dance

The music is used as a standard of dance troupes around the world, including for choreography by Pina Bausch and Sir Kenneth MacMillan. Different from the long and graceful lines of traditional ballet, arms and legs were sharply bent in Nijinsky's choreography. The dancers danced more from their pelvis than their feet, a style that later influenced Martha Graham. The "anti-ballet" aspects of the Nijinsky choreography (body components curled inward not opened outward, body pulled down not lifted up, steps heavy not light, focus on grotesqueness not elegance) as well as the controversial, violent, pagan, or primitivist thematic material, greatly influenced Hijikata and Tamano method Fantasia The Rite of Spring was further popularized through [[Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940), an animated feature film in which imaginative visual images and stories are added to classical music. Stravinsky's own 1961 recording of the work for Columbia Records included liner notes by him, transcribed from an interview for which the audio still exists. Therein, he stated that he received $1,200 (his share of a total $5,000) for the use of his music in the film, explaining that since his music was not copyrighted for use in the USA it could be used regardless of whether he granted permission or not, but that Disney wished to show the film in other countries. In order for the music to follow the animated story concerned, much of Part I either was omitted entirely or was moved to, or repeated at, the end. Stravinsky described the performance as "execrable" and thought the segment as a whole "involved a dangerous misunderstanding".

The Walt Disney studios countered his assertions with detailed reports and photographs of Stravinsky's visit to the studio in which he was shown an early version of the sequence. "Ah, yes! That is just what I meant, I suppose!" he chuckled. He is seen in various photographs smiling and holding animation reference maquettes, and after seeing the piece, he gave Disney rights to film The Firebird in any subsequent version of Fantasia.

The Disney studios maintain they were completely surprised by his turn of opinion in later years. In the most bizarre iteration of Stravinsky's story regarding his trip to the studio, he claimed he signed over the rights for The Firebird to the Disney studios only after Walt Disney personally threatened him and told him he was going to film The Firebird whether he liked it or not, so he might as well sign over the rights and be paid for it. The Disney family maintains that Stravinsky was being disingenuous, for whatever personal reason. Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney later used The Firebird in his production of Fantasia 2000. (The Firebird was also used in the pastiche of Fantasia, Allegro non troppo.)

The Rite of Spring is the fourth piece to be played in the film, illustrated by "a pageant, as the story of the growth of life on Earth" according to the narration (read by Deems Taylor). 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.

The Rite of Spring sequence featured four parts:

The Beginning of the Earth

Prehistoric Life

The Age of the Dinosaurs

Life then on

As a film score

Many subsequent film composers have been influenced by The Rite of Spring and sometimes make indirect or direct references to the work. For example, for the original Star Wars, John Williams wrote a cue for a scene in the Dune Sea of Tatooine that begins with a permutation of the introduction to Part II of The Rite of Spring. Jerry Goldsmith's score for Peter Hyams' science-fiction classic Outland can be heard to draw on Stravinsky's score at several points. The specific motivation for such reference/homage/borrowing is not always apparent, but in the sleeve notes of the special edition of the soundtrack of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, John Williams is quoted as saying that he broke one of his own cardinal rules, in that he listened to Lucas' temp track. The similarity between this Star Wars passage and the Introduction of Part II of Stravinsky's work suggest that George Lucas had used this very piece as music for that scene. This work also echoes in the theme to Steven Spielberg's 2005 adaptation of War of the Worlds. The opening bars of the piece form a theme used in the animated TV series The Animals Of Farthing Wood.

Notable recordings

Stravinsky reportedly greeted Leonard Bernstein's 1958 recording with the one-word reaction, "Wow!" In a detailed review of Herbert von Karajan's first 1964 account he derided it as "too polished", "a pet savage rather than a real one", and described Action rituelle des ancêtres as "tempo di hoochie-coochie" and "duller than Disney's dying dinosaurs". He concluded: "I doubt whether The Rite can be satisfactorily performed in terms of Herr von Karajan's traditions".

See also



  • Copland, Aaron. 1952. Music and Imagination. The Charles Elliot Norton Lectures, 1951–52. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Eksteins, Modris. 1989. Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0395937582.
  • Forte, Allen. 1978. The Harmonic Organization of the Rite of Spring. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300022018
  • Henahan, Donal. 1984. " Phiharmonic: Incarnations of Spring". New York Times (March 23).
  • Hill, Peter. 2000. Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-62221-2.
  • Perle, George. 1977. "Berg's Master Array of Interval Cycles". Musical Quarterly 63:1–30. Reprinted in Perle, The Right Notes: Twenty-Three Selected Essays by George Perle on Twentieth-Century Music, 207–35. Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1995.
  • Perle, George. 1990. The Listening Composer. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-06991-9.
  • Scheurer, Timothy E. 1997. "John Williams and Film Music Since 1971—Composer". Popular Music and Society (Spring):
  • Stravinsky, Igor. 1998. An Autobiography. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0393318562 (Originally published: New York:Simon & Schuster, 1936; first published as a Norton paperback 1962.)
  • Stravinsky, Igor, and Robert Craft. 1962. Expositions and Developments. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520044037
  • Taruskin, Richard. 1996. Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works through Mavra. 2 vols. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-07099-2.
  • Van den Toorn, Pieter C. 1987. Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring: The Beginnings of a Musical Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0193153319; Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0520059581 full text
  • Yarustovsky, Boris Mikhailovich. 1965. Foreword to an edition of the orchestral score. Moscow: Izd. "Muzyka". English translation, New York: Dover Publications, 1989; ISBN 0-486-25857-2.

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