A spring break with tradition that’s now a musical rite of passage

A century on, Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ still has the power to shock and awe, and musicians are still finding ways to transform it

Composer Igor Stravinsky  (right) and impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Seville during their Ballets Russes collaboration. Photograph:  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Composer Igor Stravinsky (right) and impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Seville during their Ballets Russes collaboration. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

There’s a scene in Arthur Penn’s 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, where the two bank-robbers fruitlessly try to make out on a bed. Lots of rustling sheets, difficult breathing, not much action.

I first saw the film in a large, old-style cinema that was packed to the gills. The audience seemed to be finding the whole bed thing as unendurable as the characters, until somebody shouted out with perfect clarity: “Will someone go and get a f**king priest.” Five minutes later, the ripples of laughter still hadn’t fully died down.

The alienation and hilarity came to mind years later when I heard a radio documentary about the May 1913 first night of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris. It was one of the great scandals of 20th-century music and dance. The jerky turned-in toes choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky – which has been famously recreated by the Joffrey Ballet – went against everything that classical dance stood for. Stravinsky’s music had a primitivistic rawness that has lost none of its power to this day. And there seem to have been many in the audience who were there simply to protest.

Whatever had been achieved in advance by word of mouth can only have been intensified by a press announcement on the day of the performance. For this “evocation of the first gestures of pagan Russia”, the dancers of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes were “the only ones capable of expressing these stammerings of a semi-savage humanity, of composing these frenetic human clusters wrenched incessantly by the most astonishing polyrhythm ever to come from the mind of a musician. There is truly a new thrill which will surely raise passionate discussions, but which will leave all true artists with an unforgettable impression.”

If you’d had your ear to the ground you might have known that the dancers had been through more than a hundred rehearsals, and that the conductor Pierre Monteux had had 17 orchestral rehearsals. Decades later, one of the players, double-bassist Henri Girard, recalled: “It is hard to describe the astonishment of the orchestra when we started the first rehearsal. Except for Monteux, who had studied the score with Stravinsky, everybody was confused by the complicated rhythms, atrocious dissonances, and strange sounds to which our ears were not accustomed. Musicians started to stop Monteux, asking if the parts were correctly printed, wanting to know, for example, if ‘my B-natural is correct as my neighbour is playing B-flat’. This went on for a certain time until Monteux said angrily, ‘Do not stop me asking if you have a mistake. If you have one, I will let you know.’ ”

Late in life, Stravinsky wrote: “Mild protests against the music could be heard from the very beginning of the performance. Then, when the curtain opened on the group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down (Danse des adolescentes), the storm broke. Cries of ‘Ta gueule’ came from behind me. I heard Florent Schmitt shout ‘Taisez-vous garces du seizième’ [Shut up, bitches of the 16th]; the “garces” of the 16th arrondissement were, of course, the most elegant ladies in Paris. The uproar continued, however, and a few minutes later I left the hall in a rage . . . The music was so familiar to me; I loved it, and I could not understand why people who had not yet heard it wanted to protest in advance . . . I arrived in a fury backstage, where I saw Diaghilev flicking the house lights in a last effort to quiet the hall. For the rest of the performance I stood in the wings behind Nijinsky holding the tails of his frac, while he stood on a chair shouting numbers to the dancers, like a coxswain.”

My Bonnie and Clyde connection came at the end of the ballet .The dancer Marie Piltz, as the sacrificial virgin, stood in a pose of protracted trembling. Someone shouted out, “Un docteur!” Another voice responded, “Un dentiste!” And then the coup-de-grace: “Deux dentistes!

Stravinsky seems to have known that The Rite was a ne plus ultra. He never tried to surpass it or to develop further in that particular style. He left those hurdles for other people to fret over. So, when the young Kirkos Ensemble decided to mark the centenary of this great landmark work, they too went in a different direction. They asked 14 Irish composers to provide “brand new music . . . each doing whatever they felt the urge to do with a section of Stravinsky’s score”. The results were heard and seen with live visuals by Tim Redfern on Wednesday, the centenary to the day, in the intimacy of the Odessa Club.

One guaranteed outcome of the shoehorning exercise was a certain rawness, which the Kirkos players delivered in abundance. And, in keeping with a work that built its early reputation on shock value, the reimagined Rite involved, at various times, foot-stomping, shouting, whistling, and theatrical disruption of traditional performing decorum. And, unlike the 1913 première, everyone seemed to be on the side of the composers and the performers. A hundred years on, it’s not just the once barbaric-seeming innovations of The Rite of Spring that listeners can take in their stride; The Rite itself has played a huge part in that transformation.


Lismore’s operatic efforts
The Lismore Music Festival mounted a Sunday afternoon performance of Mozart’s Requiem in St Carthage’s Cathedral, in a version by Czerny for piano duet rather than orchestra.

The Lismore performance – with soloists Kim Sheehan, Rachel Kelly, Fearghal Curtis and David Howes, the Carlow Choral Society, and David Adams and Marco Zambelli on piano (and Zambelli in charge of musical direction) – was purest can belto. So much so, in fact, that as I left the cathedral, I overheard someone talking to a companion about just having heard the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto version of the Mozart Requiem.

As a forceful, in-your-face account of the work, this one was all you could wish for. Save for the fact that you wouldn’t ever wish for a Mozart Requiem that was that forceful or in-your-face in the first place.

The festival’s opera production, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (arias in Italian, mostly, recitatives in English) was altogether more agreeable. Lismore has rather struggled over the years with the reduction of orchestral scores to pocket dimensions. This year’s octet, four strings, three wind and harpsichord (a more restrained Zambelli) was the best they’ve had: neat, stylish, and as full-sounding as you could expect such a small group to be.

The singing was lively and engaged, though Dieter Kaegi’s production, updated to the present – with costumes by Slawek Narwid, a garden-based setting by Ciara Gormley, and full of panto-style humour, strong language and sexual explicitness – was not of a style that exactly encouraged vocal subtlety. The best singing came from mezzo soprano Rachel Kelly’s Cherubino, effortlessly full-voiced and boyishly hearty, and Kim Sheehan’s Susanna, who managed to produce moments of meltingly creamy tone.

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