Program Notes: Rite of Spring

Program Notes: Rite of Spring

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Full program notes:

Johannes Brahms
Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria

Concerto No. 1 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 15

Brahms was still just a rosy-cheeked boy of 20 when Robert Schumann met him, immediately recognized his talent and became his enthusiastic champion. He proclaimed Brahms “a young eagle” and said: “When he holds his magic wand over the massed resources of chorus and orchestra, we shall be granted marvelous insights into spiritual secrets.” But Schumann went into steep mental decline, attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine and died two years later in a mental asylum.

It was natural for the young composer to try to register his feelings in music, and in March 1854, only weeks after his friend’s suicide attempt, he set out to create that most dramatic and challenging of forms, a symphony. He had never written anything for orchestra, so he sketched this work first as a sonata for two pianos—and soon realized that he was not ready to compose a symphony. He decided to transform the first movement into the opening movement of a piano concerto. Then he composed a new slow movement and a new rondo-finale. Still desperately uncertain of his abilities, Brahms worked on the piano concerto for four years before, in March 1858, he was willing to try it out in a private performance. The public premiere came the following January.

the music: catastrophe, relief and heroism
maestoso. Despite the marking Maestoso, the first movement feels less majestic than catastrophic. This violent opening, Brahms told Joseph Joachim, was a depiction of his feelings when he learned of Schumann’s suicide attempt. After the initial sound and fury, the piano makes a deceptively understated entrance, which points to a remarkable feature of this movement: in general, the orchestra has the more aggressive material, the piano the friendlier music. To call this a “symphony-concerto,” as some have done, goes too far, but such a description does indicate the unusually dramatic character of this music. The huge exposition leads to a relatively brief development that includes a shimmering, dancing episode in D major. The recapitulation offers no emotional release, no modulation into a major key, and the movement drives unrelentingly to its close.

adagio. Relief arrives with the second movement. In a letter from December 1856 Brahms wrote to Schumann’s widow Clara, a superb pianist who was to be Brahms’ lifelong friend: “I am also painting a lovely portrait of you; it is to be the Adagio.” In D major, it has a quiet expressiveness, an almost consoling quality after the furies of the first movement. It rises to a gentle climax before a brief cadenza leads to a quiet close.

rondo: allegro non troppo. The finale returns to the mood and D-minor tonality of the opening. The piano’s initial theme makes few literal returns but is skillfully transformed on each reappearance, including one use as the subject for a brief but lithe fugue. Brahms offers two cadenzas in this movement, the first almost Bachian in its keyboard writing, and at the very end the rising shape of the rondo theme helps propel the movement— finally in D major—to a heroic conclusion.

Early reaction to this concerto was harsh. After a performance in Leipzig, Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann: “You have probably already heard that it was a complete fiasco; at the rehearsal it met with total silence, and at the performance (where hardly three people raised their hands to clap) it was actually hissed.” It must have given Brahms particular pleasure when, 35 years later, in 1894, he conducted a program in Leipzig that included both his piano concertos—and heard this product of his youth cheered in the same hall where it had been reviled so many years before.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and string


Igor Stravinsky
Born: June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, Russia
Died: April 6, 1971, New York City

The Rite of Spring

In the spring of 1910, while completing the orchestration of The Firebird, Igor Stravinsky had the most famous dream in the history of music: “I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dancing herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.”

This idea became The Rite of Spring, which Stravinsky began composing in the summer of 1911, immediately after the premiere of Petrushka. For help in creating a scenario that would evoke the spirit of pagan Russia, Stravinsky turned to the painter-archeologist-geologist Nicholas Roerich, who summarized the action:

“The first set should transport us to the foot of a sacred hill, in a lush plain, where Slavonic tribes are gathered together to celebrate the spring rites. In this scene there is an old witch who predicts the future, a marriage by capture, round dances. Then comes the most solemn moment. The wise elder is brought from the village to imprint his sacred kiss on the new-flowering earth. During this rite the crowd is seized with a mystic terror.

“After this uprush of terrestrial joy, the second scene sets a celestial mystery before us. Young virgins dance on the sacred hill amid enchanted rocks; they choose the victim they intend to honor. In a moment she will dance her last dance before the ancients clad in bearskins to show that the bear was man’s ancestor. Then the greybeards dedicate the victim to the god Yarilo.”

This story of violence and nature-worship in pagan Russia—inspired in part by Stravinsky’s boyhood memories of the thunderous break-up of the ice on the Neva River in St. Petersburg each spring—became a ballet in two parts, The Adoration of the Earth and The Sacrifice.

ancient and modern
In the music, Stravinsky drew on the distant past and fused it with the modern. His themes, many adapted from ancient Lithuanian wedding tunes, are brief, of narrow compass, and based on the constantly changing meters of Russian folk music,yet his harmonic language can be fiercely dissonant and “modern,” particularly in the famous repeating chord in Dance of the Adolescents, where he superimposes an E-flat major chord (with added seventh) on top of an F-flat major chord. Even more striking is the rhythmic imagination that animates this score: Stravinsky himself confessed that parts were so complicated that while he could play them, he could not write them down.

And beyond all these, The Rite of Spring is founded on an incredible orchestral sense: from the eerie sound of the high solo bassoon at the beginning through its use of a massive percussion section and such unusual instruments as alto flute and piccolo trumpet (not to mention the eight horns, two tubas and quadruple woodwinds), this score rings with sounds never heard before. The premiere may have provoked a noisy riot, but at a more civilized level it had an even greater impact: no music written after May 29, 1913, would ever be the same.

the adoration of the earth
The Introduction is scored almost exclusively for woodwinds: from the famous opening bassoon solo through its intricately twisting woodwind figures, the music suggests the wriggling of insects as they unfold and come to life in the spring thaw. This is suddenly interrupted by Dance of the Adolescents, driven along by stamping, dissonant chords and off-the-beat accents.

The Mock Abduction, full of horn calls and furious rhythmic energy, rides a quiet trill into Rounds of Spring, where together the E-flat and bass clarinets outline the haunting principal melody, another theme Stravinsky derived from ancient folk music. Deep string chords (which in the ballet accompany the male dancers’ lifting the girls onto their backs) soon build to a cataclysmic climax full of the sound of tam-tam and trombone glissandos. The return of the wistful opening melody rounds this section off quietly, but that calm is annihilated by the timpani salvos and snarling low brass of Games of the Rival Cities. The eight horns ring out splendidly here, and the music rushes ahead to the brief Procession of the Wise Elder and then to one of the eeriest moments in the score, Adoration of the Earth. Only four measures long, this concludes with an unsettling chord for eleven solo strings, all playing harmonics, as the Wise Elder bends to kiss the earth. The music explodes, and Dance of the Earth races to the conclusion of the ballet’s first half.

the sacrifice
The second part of the work might be thought of as a gradual crescendo of excitement. It moves from a misty beginning (an inspiration to generations of film composers) to the exultant fury of the concluding Sacrificial Dance. Along the way come such distinctive moments as the solo for alto flute in Mysterious Circles of Young Girls, where the sacrificial maiden will be chosen; the violently pounding 11/4 measure that thrusts the music into Glorification of the Chosen One; the nodding, bobbing bassoons that herald Evocation of the Ancestors (another folk-derived theme of constricted range yet of great metric variety); and the shrieking horns of Ritual of the Ancestors.

A solitary bass clarinet plunges us into the Sacrificial Dance, whose rhythmic complexity has become legendary: this was the section that Stravinsky could play but at first not write down, and in 1943 (30 years after composing this music) he went back and rebarred it in the effort to make it easier for performers. This music is dauntingly “black” on the page, with its furious energy, its quite short (and constantly changing) bar lengths and its gathering excitement. It dances its way to a delicate violin trill, and The Rite of Spring concludes with the brutal chord that marks the climactic moment of sacrifice.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), alto flute, piccolo, 4 oboes (1 doubling English horn), English horn, 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), contrabassoon, 8 horns (2 doubling tenor Wagner tuben), 4 trumpets (1 doubling bass trumpet), piccolo trumpet, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, antique cymbals in B-flat/A-flat, cymbals, bass drum, guiro, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle and strings

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