Responding to The Rite of Spring

Igor Stravinsky (Tully Potter collection)Igor Stravinsky (Tully Potter collection)

March 1930 (AM Gordon-Brown)

The year 1913 saw the production, and consequent riot in the Paris Opera House, of Le Sacre du Printemps. Controversy still rages over the musical value of this stupendous work; its elemental brutality and primitive savagery have caused great offence to many people, but whether or not one admires the mentality of the perpetrator of such musical barbarianism one cannot deny its perfection of realistic expression and complete originality of exposition. Eminent critics belong to both parties in the controversy which rages round all post-Petrushka Stravinsky, so that I can only recommend those who are sufficiently interested in his subsequent musical development to avail themselves of the set of Sacre records issued by French HMV and to judge for themselves. The playing, under that very capable conductor of modern music, Pierre Monteux, is extremely fine, the recording is absolutely first-rate, and the whole thing is amazingly thrilling even if, in parts, rather horrible. 


April 1931 (review, by WR Anderson)

Stravinsky The Rite of Spring

Orchestra Symphonique de Paris / Stravinsky (Columbia Records)

After waiting 18 years for The Rite (its inception and partial execution date back even further) we have in one month two recordings of it, the second of which has the advantage of the conductor's direction. Very frankly, the annotator says that 'such elemental force can arouse enthusiasm or kindle an equal aversion which may amount to some thmg like hatred.' It is most true that you cannot ignore the work. But has it left any successor of real power? Many imitators there have been, but I cannot think of a true successor, either from Stravinsky's hand or any other. This is worth pondering. One of my valued correspondents, in telling me that he has played the Capriccio (reviewed last month) seventeen times, and that he ranks it as the best thing the composer has done, says: "I don't really feel the Sacre to be music at all, as I understand it.' Is this feeling shared? He adds that he does not feel the Stravinsky of the earlier ballets and of The Rite 'as being really modern in spirit at all'  – whereas the Capriccio seems to him very representative of the post-war spirit, 'a sort of cynical restlessness.' The phrase seems to me to hit off a truth: but what a poor world to live in, if that is what we are after! 

I take it that Stravinsky has ground out of this reading of the Sacre all the 'poetry rubbidge'. The French orchestra is not so fine as the American, but it has a fragility of touch in places, and a relentlessness, that will probably commend the performance highly to devotees of the work. I should like to see a vote taken on, say, 'Dance of the Adolescents'. It seems to me extremely dull and un-moving patterning. Some words of Edith Sitwell, about the work as a whole, may, however, be suggestive: 'Life is energy, and the very fact of that life will eventually push us over the abyss into the waiting and intolerable darkness. In The Rite of Spring he gives us the beginning of energy, the enormous and terrible shaping of the visible and invisible world through movement.' We have moved a long way from old Haydn's chaos in The Creation (itself remarkably advanced for its day). Is the move for the better: and must art get nearer to the painful in order to express the primitive? 


May 1931 (Compton Mackenzie)

Different indeed is the atmosphere of Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps, which at long last is available for the gramophone (yes, yes, you collectors of foreign recordings, I know it has been published abroad already), and which I need hardly add when it does arrive arrives in duplicate. The HMV version is recorded on four black discs played by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra under Stokowski and the Columbia version is recorded on five discs played by the Orchestra Symphonique de Paris and conducted by the composer himself. Solely from the point of view of the gramophone I give my vote for the Stokowski version, but that does not commit me to an opinion that Stokowski knows better what Stravinsky meant than the composer himself.

The modernity of Stravinsky is of the same quality as the modernity of DH Lawrence, though I think that Lawrence in his own medium was a greater artist than Stravinsky in his. Yet neither Lawrence nor Stravinsky has wrought anything like the revolution their devotees believe they have and would like us to believe. Both step back in the hope of jumping further, and both in despising the conventional track get entangled in undergrowth. There is a straight and narrow path to the ultimate truth or heaven, there is a broad and easy road to the ultimate lie or hell; but if one has an exaggerated belief in one's own unaided sense of direction it is as easy to get off the broad road as the narrow and to end in a tangle leading nowhere. Thus already in his later work we find Stravinsky wandering in a circle through a thicket of briars, as in that Capriccio for piano and orchestra which we have on the gramophone. And in Lawrence's last book, Son of Man, we find him hopelessly bogged in the eerie empty waste of Gnosticism.

When I play The Rite of Spring after playing through the superb album of Gregorian Chant published in the same month by His Master's Voice I seem to see Stravinsky as a tragic buffoon. The Rite of Spring may, as Mr Osbert Sitwell says, make all other music sound ridiculous. At the same time, even its most passionate devotees cannot find other music one-tenth as ridiculous as I find Stravinsky's after listening for ten minutes to plainsong. Stravinsky wants to take us back and make primitive men of us again, but as we assist at the sacrifice of the chosen virgin we are uncomfortably aware that the cloven hooves we are wearing were made at a bootshop round the corner, and that the goats' tails we flourish so wantonly are sewn on with Paisley cotton. It is all really playing at 'let's pretend', and the music is really no more elemental, no more barbaric, no more potent than the lady-like young men who cluster and pose and skip through contemporary ballet.

 

August 1936 (Basil Hogarth)

Alas for the powers of critical prophecy. The music of Le Sacre is in 1936 easily taken in the stride. The dissonances which so repelled an earlier generation are now appreciated in their true perspective. The rhythmic and harmonic outspokenness of the score does not in the least affront a generation brought up on Freud and Spengler. 


August 1937 (Compton Mackenzie)

We are told Stravinsky's Sacre de Printemps represents the frenzy achieved in primeval fertility rites, but if we had not been told that I question if we should read into the music anything more than a puzzling row which we gradually grew to like or dislike still more according to our temperaments. 

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