After Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, what next?

Richard Whitehouse Thu 28th July 2016

The radical spirit of Stravinsky's masterpiece can be felt in several works of the last century...

Recognized at its strife-riven premiere as a touchstone for the music of the future, The Rite of Spring has achieved a popularity unmatched by any other 'modern music' of the 20th century. Yet its fascination is not only due to its uninhibited energy and rhythmic flair. By defining rhythm and melody in such elemental terms, Stravinsky was able to achieve a harmonic richness equal to that found in the very different music of Debussy and Schoenberg. It is this combination of the primal and the complex, of ancient civilization re-created in the context of an advanced culture, that made The Rite a unique and, for Stravinsky, unrepeatable creation. His 1960 recording, tense and ruthlessly exact, is mandatory listening...

Prokofiev Scythian Suite (1916)

Prokofiev responded immediately to The Rite when he heard it in London in 1915. Perhaps he intended to go one better with his ballet Ala and Lolli, which Diaghilev commissioned and subsequently rejected. The resulting concert work features some of Prokofiev's most sensationalist dissonances, notably in the opening 'Adoration' and closing 'Sun's procession'. Countering these is the harmonic sensuality of 'Night', featuring some of the most refined writing of his early maturity.

Varèse Amériques (1921)

For Varèse, Amériques was not just a change in direction but a new beginning: the Americas, signifying '...new worlds on earth, in the sky or in the minds of men'. Today, its very European origins - from the Debussian opening to the Stravinskian close - are its most immediate feature. Despite these innuences, Amériques remains a magnificent leap into the future; its explosive final minutes perhaps even surpassing The Rite in sheer power and energy.

Milhaud La création du monde (1923)

Classical/jazz fusion has been in the air virtually since the first jazz recordings a century ago. One of the most cosmopolitan composers of his day, Milhaud was ideally placed to attempt such a synthesis. Like the Stravinsky, La creation employs sophisticated means to primitivistic ends. Here, however, it is the insinuating, blues-inflected harmony, laced with a streak of decadence, which makes the work more than just a finely calculated period piece.

Bartók The Miraculous Mandarin (1924)

Dogged by scandal even before its premiere, and only now becoming familiar in its complete version, Bartók's lurid 'pantomime' stands poised between the psychological complexity of his earlier stage-works and the rigorous classicism of his later music. Its low-life scenario would seem far removed from Stravinsky, were it not for the element of sacrifice common to both. Moreover, its febrile intensity, and vividly suggestive sound world marked a similar point of no return for its composer.

Antheil Ballet mécanique (1926)

The significance of The Rite as a harbinger of scandal is nowhere better illustrated than in Antheil 's notorious ballet, then the last word in rhythmic and dynamic overkill. With its dehumanized piano and percussion onslaught, overlaid with the amplified noise of aeroplane engines, its musical value might be thought negligible, were it not for the frightening momentum Antheil is able to achieve. In an era when loudness has become its own justification, Ballet mécanique deserves recognition - if only for marking a beginning.

Shostakovich Symphony No 4 (1936)

Written as Stalin's 'Terror' approached its peak, and unperformed for a quarter of a century, Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony represents not so much a creative end-point as the graphic portrayal of a musical crisis. The conflicting poles of Stravinsky and Mahler are just two of the components that inform the stylistic recklessness of the work. Whatever the inherent shortcomings, it remains the most volatile symphony from a decade of such statements in the medium.

Boulez Notations I-IV (1945, orch 1978)

The profile of the post-war era's most elusive composer received a sharp boost with the appearance of these re-workings of piano pieces written over 30 years. After a prolonged period of soul-searching, Boulez was in effect going back to his musical roots. The large orchestra is used soloistically to create a vast range of sonorities, given coherence by Boulez's ear for harmonic clarity. The final piece re-lives the danger of Stravinsky's most celebrated score with a vengeance.

Feldman Coptic Light (1986)

The opening minutes of the second part of The Rite of Spring leave an impression not unlike the whole of Coptic Light, Feldman's last orchestral work and unusual among his later music for its modest length. In its translucency of colour and inevitability of harmonic motion, the piece owes more to Sibelius than Stravinsky. Yet the latter would surely have appreciated the highly imaginative expansion of texture and sonority that, after 1913, he chose not to explore.

Carter Partita (1993)

Finally to a work by an American composer for whom Stravinsky held a special attraction. Beyond the barbarity and destruction of The Rite's subject-matter is a physical energy as unstoppable as it is life-affirming. It is these qualities which Carter conveys in this marvellously exuberant work. The legacy of Stravinsky's once scandalous ballet has been truly vindicated.

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