Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun DUN dun DUN dun dun dun dun dun DUN dun dun DUN dun dun dun DUN.
There are two types of people in this world. Those who know already what this post is about based on the title, and those who don’t yet.
As a percussionist, there are a few composers and genres you always get excited for. There are also composers that bore you to death. There seems to be something wrong with the way a percussionist works, as you have all these strings and woodwinds doing all these impressive runs and vibratos and glissandos and this never ending stream of notes emanate from their instruments, bodies writhing and moving back and forth with the music. And in the back, there are three or four penguins, standing silently in wait, occasionally (and I do mean very occasionally in some instances) picking up their instrument, probably two or three minutes before they’re due to play, and winding up for a single, dramatic *ding* of a triangle note. If you ever go to an orchestra performance, look at the percussionists. Every so often you’ll see a dramatic build up and then…absolutely nothing. The poor soul has missed the entrance and now must sheepishly put their whole contraption back, all that wind up for nothing, and they can’t even pretend to play it because of course, everyone can hear it. Legend has it that a percussionist is paid for silence, and I can’t say I’d argue with that. The perks though? Leaving in the middle of rehearsal, grabbing a three course dinner, and coming back just in time to be cued in for your cymbal crash.
Back to the composers we always get excited for: for the most part, Mahler. One out of nine (ten, if you believe in Baca’s theory of good composers only getting nine symphonies and Mahler sneaking in a tenth after number 2) chances that you will get to play with symphony with the big hammer and box larger than yourself is pretty good and exciting odds. Tchaikovsky (1812, come on.), Gershwin (50 continuous hours + tendonitis in the rehearsal room blasting out Porgy and Bess because god forbid you miss one note during the audition), Berlioz and Holtz, Ravel (all of the marching), Rimsky-Korsakov (it’s a love-hate relationship. I blame all rotator cuff injuries on you), Prokofiev (Kije pppppppwhydontijustnotplay = carpal tunnel), Beethoven marginally, and Stravinsky.
Arguably, most musicians will fangirl over Stravinsky, but Stravinsky (along with any other composer that gifted us with massive timpani solos that cripple us with fear and wake us up drenched with sweat that we’ve forgotten to retune that last drum) holds a special place in my heart. Although Firebird was the first orchestral arrangement I ever saw live, Rite of Spring is what made me fall in love with classical music. I’ve probably played the piece 4 or 5 times now, and it’s racked up over 100 plays on my Spotify, and I’ve seen it live, but every single time it happens, I shed a few tears. It is a thoroughly spiritual experience.
Dance de la Terre is the most terrifying bass drum solo you will ever play in your life. It will never be fast enough, loud enough, hard enough for the conductor, and you will get so many dirty looks from the string players from covering them up. I broke a tam-tam once during a performance. The vibrations from every note you play dangle in the air — they’re meant to, you’re absolutely isolated and the piece works eerily because you can literally feel the air molecules around you being shaken and the suspense is terrible and great. The eleven notes from the timpani and bass drum just before measure 104 (Vivo) in Glorification de L’eue will forever pound out for me “I-gor-Stra-vins-ky-is-a-son-of-a-b****” but I digress. This is not meant to be a long winded complaint from a percussionist about Rite of Spring (although it has been, I apologize). This is meant to be a new spin at a famous, classical work, one that has redefined the borders of dance and music, a work that has survived initial scrutiny and gives us all hope that if something is deemed by the public to be vulgar and offensive, the public merely has poor taste, and the our brilliance is simply too much for them. So here we go.
Let us look at the very end and very beginning of Rite of Spring, and then to the structure of the entire piece, and finish this out with a post-modern lens. The very last chord is one that isn’t studied as much as the Tristan chord, but perhaps signifies just as much. The context is that this is the sacrifice of “The Chosen One” and the chord looks like:
It spells out DEAD. Despite it sounding mostly just like a noise, it is just one of the few clever Easter eggs from Stravinsky, and has never failed to impress me. And rewind to the beginning, we have a beautiful lone bassoon solo.
But in between lies the genius and the heartbreak that is the Rite of Spring. We have the ever present erratic time signatures, meter changes occurring at a terrifying pace, and a ridiculous rhythms that punctuate and reverberate through the orchestra. They are not polyrhythms, nor are they actually erratic. They are simply uncomfortable, and they make you rise on your seat, forcing new time signatures, spinning the beat towards an unmistakable collapse but you are always anxious and always unsure when it might happen. This is what makes Stravinsky exhilarating, this is why it leaves me emotionally exhausted after listening. There is something we humans like about symmetry, and there is something that we admire about balance. Architects, engineers, artists will all tell you that an odd number of things is more aesthetically pleasing than an even set. There isn’t a particular reason why. And for our ears, it is the seamless unending arpeggiations of tonic and dominant chords that sooth the soul. Yet good art is supposed to soothe the anguish and anguish the soothed, and perhaps that is why the popularity of the Rite of Spring has grown. Because in post-Wagnerian composers, rhythm was something to be toyed with, measure bars and time signatures more of guidelines, musical phrases are meant to cut into each other, poly rhythms sinking their teeth into straight beats. The Rite of Spring explosively manipulates this lack of regularity, punctuating the monotony not with simple blasts from the brass or percussion, but dizzyingly tunes the whole of the orchestra onto a pulse far from a standard metronome, more towards a hummingbird with a heart murmur. Gone are the classical symmetrical subtleties, gone are the sensuous curves and flowing waves of the romantic era.
Instead, in two parts and thirteen movements, we have crashing waves of controlled chaos, and eerily beautiful moments that sweep all of the ringing sound away, clearing the musical palete for the next ride of sounds. Where most people might see weakly structured sounds being pulled every which way to form the magic of the Rite of Spring, we must realize that the structure in Stravinsky’s work exists, simply in a way that the European (and contemporary) ear is not necessarily trained for. This is where copious hours of counting measures of rests, listening desperately for cues from the percussion section comes in handy, this is where pouring over the score reveals order. Stravinsky incorporates ostinatos and regularity all over the piece, in places you do not expect. The frenzied Danse Sacrale is not more complex than an eleven count, with a count of eleven (six and seven usually silent). The end of Cortege du Sage is simply modified 4/4 time with a triplet pulse. The conductor is utterly useless, listen towards the back and feel the pulse of the orchestra. What this argues for social commentary, we can only imagine, but this is practical, and this is madness.
Musically, the Rite of Spring is actually quite far from what people considered to be real music at the time. The tension was palpable during the debut, and this would be an understatement, but let’s take an analytical look at the key progressions. We see absolutely nothing. Thanks to musical notation, we can understand that most of the beginning after the full orchestra is in has a five flat key signature, probably could be categorized as E-flat Dorian harmony. While the flutes are diddling about shortly before this, there’s a four flat key, and I suppose you could identify a C major in Jeu Des Cites Rivales, and there’s a B major in the solo violas in part two, but honestly, we have to admit that Stravinsky actually just wrote this by ear. Gone are the counterpoints (although they do exist, copiously, in Rite of Spring) and the niceties of chord progressions; we are blasted, continuously, with a stave full of notes. Rite of Spring starts off with one lone bassoon, but quickly, within the first minute, we have more than 35 staves, a nightmare and cacophony of sounds, but beautiful in its own right.
It is hard to imagine what the initial premier of Rite of Spring was like, and no analysis of the piece goes without mentioning it’s debut. This is the power of music and art, that a ballet caused a people to riot. And as well it should, as music is one of the greatest social indicators of change, each artist and musician a proverbial canary in a coalmine. But the Rite of Spring was a debut that questioned the boundaries of what music was, and probably serves as justification for every piece that comes out now to further defy the boundaries. We might argue and debate for hours and write books and dissertations on what constitutes as music, and classes (such as this one) serve to educate us in musical culture, but what has bothered me this entire year is what exactly obtaining an appreciation for music is. Is it being able to identify what is musical? Is it being able to say what is good music, and what is not? If it is possible to define “good” music and “bad” music, who has the power, who has the ethos of doing this? Surely a piece as well respected as the Rite of Spring cannot be dismissed as “bad” simply because it was considered bad at the time, but if it had died into obscurity from the initial premier, would we have had to exist without it forever? It was in reading over interviews with Stravinsky that I finally came to terms with some of these questions. He says
“I was…attacked for being a pasticheur, chided for composing “simple” music, blamed for deserting “modernism,” accused of renouncing my “true Russian heritage.” People who had never heard of, or cared about, the originals cried “sacrilege”: “The classics are ours. Leave the classics alone.” To them all my answer was and is the same: You “respect,” but I love.
-Expositions and Developments (1959)
And such is the trouble with music education. Of course we can be taught the subtleties of an aria and a lied, and of course understanding the structure of a fugue is a sign of culture, but we have to ask ourselves the question, one that has perhaps a terrifying answer, can we be taught to love music? Can we really figure out why this magical thing exists? Stravinsky makes me cry because it is the first piece of music that left me shaken, not because it was entirely pleasing, but because it evoked the whole breadth of the human spectrum of emotions for me.
That’s not to belittle this class; it has been one of the best in my collegiate career and has taught me more things than an entire year’s worth of structural physics. But it leaves me with more questions than answers. Is to simply know how to play music enough, is to simply understand it worth it? Because Bach (or Mozart, or Beethoven) claimed that any fool could play music, simply by hitting the right notes at the right time. And so we will continue to praise the geniuses of music theory, and the virtuosos, but perhaps we must also question if the true connoisseurs of music are the ones who love their “music”, the rejected modern day Stravinskies.