Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical – #12 Stravinsky Le Sacre du printemps
I first heard Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on February 3, 1994 as part of the music theory classes I took at Foothill College. I went to the store and bought a CD, the Seiji Ozawa with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (still, by far, the BEST concert recording of The Rite of Spring I have ever heard. Ozawa drives the Chicago Symphony Orchestra hard to get just the right kinetic palpable energy out of the music). My very first impression was “what the hell is this noise!” It was so far out in left field to what I had ever previously heard! Not to worry, by May 1994, I recorded in my journal, “Then the top 20 classical songs with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring keeping the top spot.” (May 21,1994).
Almost everyone has had a similar kind of experience because the young Igor Stravinsky was in his absolute prime when he composed this marvelous work. He had quite the run in the early teens of the 20th century starting with Firebird and Petroushka. While working on the Firebird he had a vision of a pagan ritual in pre-Christian Russia of the celebration of the advent of spring. His version of pagan celebration of spring included, for a ballet audience, a virgin dancing herself to death. The story has all the elements of intrigue and marketing shock.
Then Stravinsky used all the tools he could think of to push the boundaries musically, and man, what an amazing accomplishment. What Stravinsky did was take Russian folk melodies, warp them slightly, change the rhythmic value and add in harsh percussive attacks combined with complete dissonance in the harmonies. This is where Stravinsky succeeds where other composers of atonality don’t quite succeed. One of my biggest critiques of the Rite is that it still feels detached, too foreign. The reason it still works so well is because Stravinsky used Russian and Ukrainian folk tunes as the anchor, so that while you were blasted to smithereens by hurricane force dissonance and percussive attacks, you still felt like there was something to attach to.
My favorite parts are the Young Girls Dances in which Stravinsky has the famous E on top of Eb chords with off-putting accents. It really sets the stage for the greatness to come. The introduction is good too, with the high bassoon. The Dance of the Earth that concludes the first part is a great mix of different rhythmic qualities depending on the instrument or group of instruments.
But the best part is the Sacrificial Dance itself. You can watch the actual ballet version, but that doesn’t get the right speed, because no dancer could possibly dance that fast. This is where Seiji Ozawa’s version with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra shines. The propulsive energy of the sacrificial dance is amazing, especially with everyone in perfect timing. The dance itself is created around a motive broken up into bits and pieces copied and pasted in a carefully coordinated way. So you would hear the first two notes of the motive in a 2/16 time signature, followed by three notes of the motive in a 3/16 time signature. And so it would go. It really is perfectly done. And when you watch the ballet, you can palpably feel the visceral dance of death.
It should be noted that, as Alex Ross notes in his book , “The Rest is Noise”, “The notion of a female sacrifice was Stravinsky’s special contribution. As Lynn Garafola points out, no pagan people except for the Aztecs demanded the sacrifice of young girls.” (Ch. 2) It is also another example from that time period, the early 20th century, in which composers created stories in which the female character is killed in some fashion. I try to avoid those tales, as much as possible. It’s one reason why I don’t quite like Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, despite the music being quite impressive. Why does Isolde die, exactly? No one physically injured her, and she was under a chemical reaction, not a real love. Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande also has Melisande die. Why? Why did Golaud have to wound her too? There are a lot of problems with that tale. Which leads to another tale coming from the same source. Bela Bartok composed Bluebeard’s Castle, in which the female is consigned to spend the rest of her life locked in some room in this castle with six previous wives of Bluebeard? Very much a WTF story. It’s a really dark tale. The music for Bluebeard’s Castle is astounding, really fantastic, but I just don’t like the tale. It leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth. Strauss gives us the tale of Salome who also dies in the end, yet her tale is different in that her choices cause her to be killed, you know, asking for an innocent man to be beheaded. Then there is Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. I have a visceral reaction to this tale, because Wozzeck straight up murders his poor wife. And again, the music is adventurous and inventive. But, man, don’t kill the woman. Male composers and writers writing odd stories of various ways women are killed is a baffling fetish that bothers me tremendously.
That tangent kills the vibe, unfortunately. Rite of Spring is more toward Tristan und Isolde rather than Bluebeard’s Castle or Wozzeck. Stravinsky treats other female characters elsewhere better, and here he was playing to his ignorance about his assumptions of pagan cultures in Russia’s past. I certainly had a similar impression growing up that it was common that pagan cultures out of that region sacrificed female virgins to appease gods, (a great example is from Conan the Barbarian which has female characters being sacrificed to snake gods).
The Rite of Spring is probably the most influential piece of music of the 20th century. Jazz musicians were influenced by it. Alex Ross writes about how Charlie Parker love The Rite. When he visited Paris, he “marked the occasion by incorporating the first notes of the Rite into his solo on “Salt Peanuts.” Ross also noted that when “playing Birdland in New York, the bebop master spotted Stravinsky at one of the tables and immediately incorporated a motif from Firebird into “Koko,” causing the composer to spill his scotch in ecstasy.” (Ch. 2) Composers dabbling in atonality, or straight up drenched in it, had The Rite as the peak of what could be accomplished within atonality. Film composers borrow heavily from The Rite, as much as Stravinsky borrowed from Ukrainian and Russian folk music. The Rite of Spring essentially is the Beethoven Symphony No. 5 of the 20th Century, setting a high bar for the rest of the century.
As for recordings, again, the absolute best is Seiji Ozawa with the Chicago Symphony. Here, for instance, is the Sacrificial Dance, just sooo good.
You can also see him conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra back in 1983, but they don’t take it at the same, good speed. Still Ozawa is really impressive because he conducts without looking at the score! He knows the piece that well.
And finally, you HAVE to watch the full ballet at least once in your life. It caused a riot when it first premiered in Paris. Come see what caused all the commotion. Here is the Mariinsky theater with Gergiev conducting. The tempo is fantastic and the ballet choreography is astounding.
#12 – Stravinsky Le Sacre du Printemps
#13 – Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue
#14 – Mozart Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551
#15 – Coltrane My Favorite Things
#16 – Dvorak Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70
#17 – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30
#18 – Mozart Don Giovanni, K. 527
#19 – Liszt Les Preludes, S. 97
#20 – Mozart Le Nozze di Figaro, K. 492
#21 – Tchaikovsky Swan Lake, Op. 20
#22 – Mahler Symphony No. 2 in C minor
#23 – Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11
#24 – Williams Empire Strikes Back
#25 – Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb major, Op. 73
#26 – Bernstein West Side Story
#27 – Enescu – Octet for Strings in C major, Op. 7
#28 – Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110
#29 – Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain
#30 – Webber Phantom of the Opera
#31 – Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky
#32 – Chopin Nocturne in Bb minor, Op. 9, No. 1
#33 – Debussy Images, Book 1, L110
#34 – Debussy Pour Le Piano, L. 95
#35 – Chaminade Guitare, Op. 32
#36 – Chopin Berceuse in Db major, Op. 57
#37 – Boulanger Nocturne pour violon et piano
#38 – Schönberg Les Miserables
#39 – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
#40 – Miranda Hamilton
#41 – Strauss Salomé
#42 – Britten Peter Grimes
#43 – Loewe My Fair Lady
#44 – Liszt Mephisto Waltzes
#45 – Webber Evita
#46 – Poledouris Conan The Barbarian
#47 – Bernstein Trouble in Tahiti
#48 – Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
#49 – Chaminade La Lisonjera, Op. 50
#50 – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
Jobim Girl From Ipanema
Shostakovich Suite for Variety Orchestra
Schubert Symphony No. 9 in C major, D 944
Saariaho L’Amour de Loin
Schubert String Quartet No. 14 “Death and the Maiden”
Desmond Take Five
Wagner Die Walküre
Davis So What
Wagner Tristan Und Isolde
Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings
Williams Raiders of the Lost Ark
Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht
Grisey Les espaces acoustiques
Gade – Octet for 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 violoncellos in F major, Op. 17
Schubert – Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759