Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)

Igor Stravinsky

In 1910, Stravinsky was the toast of Paris. At this time he produced his lush ballet, The Firebird to satisfied, gentile acclaim and more cultural delight. Little did the Parisian world know that simultaneously he was hatching a plan to write a fantasy piece in various episodes describing a violent, ruthless pagan ritual. “In my imagination,” the composer recalled, ”I saw a solemn pagan rite: wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death whom they are offering as a sacrifice to the god of Spring in order to gain his benevolence.” In 1911, while in Clarens, Switzerland, he felt ready to jot down the first notes of his Rite.

One year earlier, in 1910, he had enlisted the help of archeologist and folklorist Nikolai Roerich (an ex pat living in Paris) to “ensure authenticity.”  As the piece developed, he worked closely with Roerich, and during 1912-1913 the Rite of Spring was referred to as “our child.” The composer was so indebted that he dedicated the score to Roerich.  For a while, he viewed his “fantasy” as a possible symphony, but was persuaded by Serge Diaghiler to turn it into a ballet.

On May 28, 1913, he changed a few ideas, and the following day, Rite of Spring was produced at the Theatre des Champs Elysees to an astonished audience. In place of the elegance of classical ballet, the dancers gyrated their pelvises; arms and legs were sharply bent. “When the curtain rose on a group of knock-kneed pigeon-toed long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down in hideous costumes, the audience went berserk. But the visual shock was nothing compared to the music. The United States premier in 1924 emerged in a concert version, but Stravinsky noted about both premieres that his intention was “to send them all to hell.”

Upon hearing the brash, frightening score, the first-time audience dissolved into angry shouts, catcalls, whistles, and fistfights in the aisles degenerated into a riot. Diaghilev raced backstage to turn the lights on and off to calm the attendees but to no avail. On the side, the choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky mounted a chair and screamed step numbers to the dancers who were unable to hear the music. Camille Saint-Säens ran from the theater in a fury. The conductor, Pierre Monteux, who had thought Stravinsky was ”raving mad” stood his ground on the podium “apparently impervious and as nervous as a crocodile. It is still almost incredible to me that he actually brought the orchestra through to the end,” Stravinsky recalled. Monteux anticipated that the music might cause a scandal — he was wrong. It was a revolution. Police were called, and Stravinsky was infuriated. “I have never been that angry.  The music was so familiar to me. I loved it and I could not understand why people who had not heard it wanted to protest in advance.” He blamed part of the melee on the dancing itself, and in his autobiography noted “the poor boy (Nijinsky) knew nothing of music and was saddled with a task beyond his capacity.”

What was so infuriating? Besides the overt sexuality of the subject and depiction of a primordial world, harmonic dissonance, frenzied rhythmic changes and unpredictable offbeat accents, savage ostinati (repeated patterns) wild dynamics, and distorted, quirky melodies were incoherent. When quoting folk music, the composer added notes or subtracted notes (permutations) without changing the beat, thus bending melodic lines “out of shape.”  The entire tonal system of Western music was at risk.  George Perle wrote that “the intersecting of inherently non-symmetrical diatonic elements with inherently non-diatonic symmetrical elements seems to be the defining principle of the musical langue of Le Sacre and the source of the unparalleled tension and conflicted energy of the work.”

Play-by-Play Description by Stravinsky and Roerich

First Part: Adoration of the Earth, the Spring Celebration

“It takes place in the hills. The pipers pipe and young men tell fortunes (Augurs of Spring), the old woman enters.  She knows the mystery of nature and how to predict the future. Young girls with painted faces come in from the river in single file. They dance the Spring Dance. Games start (Dance of Abduction) and the Spring Khorovod (Spring Rounds), the people divide into two groups opposing each other (Ritual of the Rival Tribes). The procession of wise old men (Procession of the Sage) follows. The oldest and wisest interrupts the spring games, which comes to a stop. The people pause, trembling before the great action. The old men bless the earth. The Kiss of the Earth (The Sage) follows and the people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it (Dance of the Earth).”

The introduction is based on a Lithuanian folk tune sung by solo bassoon in pungent high register. With the Augurs of Spring, stamping, brutal-beat accents initiate the section, which set everybody on edge. An E major triad with a seventh chord in E-flat on top adds to the chaos. The chord is hammered out in the strings in a stream of eighth notes. An English horn plays an insistent ostinato figure. A Ritual of Abduction (presto) is breathless. Spring Rounds (marked tranquillo) displays melodies of a tight and narrow melodic range, singing over a stream of dissonant parallel chords. The Ritual of the Rival Tribes area offers a four note melody, heard between explosive outbursts of the full orchestra.  The scene calms somewhat with the arrival of the wise man and the Procession of the Sage. With the final Dance of the Earth, the concluding section of Part I rises to a frenetic pitch of excitement with tiny fanfare-like figures peppering the horns, wild swirling violins and heavy syncopated chords in brass and winds.


The Second Part: The Great Sacrifice (from Stravinsky and Roerich)

“At night the virgins hold mysterious games, walking in circles (Mystic Circles of the Young Girls). One of the virgins honors her, the chosen one, with a martial dance (Glorification of the Chosen One).  They invoke the ancestors and entrust the chosen one to the old wise men (Ritual Action of the Ancestors). She sacrifices herself in the presence of the old men in the great hold dance, the great sacrifice (Sacrificial Dance).”

The section begins with an introduction describing the pagan night. In the Mystic Circles of the Young Girls, marked andante con moto, the string choir is divided into thirteen parts. A melancholy folk-like melody migrates among violins, horns and oboes.

Glorification of the Chosen One turns the orchestra into one big percussion source. Rhythms move amid changing meters: 5/8, 9/8, 7/8, 4/8. Evocation of the Ancestors comes with dramatic crescendi from timpani and bass drum coupled with alternate simple fanfares from winds and brass. The Ritual Action of the Ancestors offers a pulsating accompaniment, which rises to an enormous tutti climax, caped by a swaggering theme for four horns before subsiding to almost nothing. Finally, we come to the germ, which generated the whole piece — the Sacrifical Dance. Herein, the victim dances herself to death. As the horror unfolds, the rhythms control the momentum, never releasing the unforgiving tension.

The Legacy

Did Stravinsky merely blow the top off of Western music in a momentary manic fit? In his Poetics of Music the composer noted “As for myself, I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work…I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me. Will I then have to lose myself in this abyss of freedom?”  Pierre Boulez has noted, “The Rite of Spring serves as a point of reference to all who seek to establish the birth certificate of what is called contemporary music. A kind of manifesto work…it has not ceased to engender first polemics, then praise, and finally, the necessary clarification.” Aaron Copland, in his 1951 Norton Lecture series at Harvard, considered The Rite of Spring to be “the foremost orchestral achievement of the twentieth century.”


During his long lifespan, Stravinsky spoke in many voices. After he moved to New York City in 1969, Stravinsky explained that he went there “so that he could mutate faster.”   Philip Glass noted, “he never stopped inventing himself.” He was far more than provocateur. By the twenties and thirties he was writing tamed-down music in neo-classical style, using traditional forms such as symphony, fugues, and concerti grossi.  “Music is incapable of expressing anything but itself,” he trumpeted. He was fearless. He was intense. He was determined. He was audacious. Time Magazine (June 8, 1998) concluded, “There is not a composer who lived during his time or is alive today who (has not been) touched and sometimes transformed by his work.”

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015

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