Last night Dudamel led the best Rite of Spring I’ve ever heard. Our seats certainly had something to do with it. We were right behind the timpani, dead center in the first row behind the orchestra. It was annoying not to see the musicians’ faces, but the benefit in being really immersed in the sound was worth it. The sound was thick and brilliant, and completely clear. Part of the clarity was being so close to the action that the spatial aspect of the different musicians was so obvious: the chimes sounding from three o’clock, the tubas wailing from six o’clock, the contrabassons at 10 o’clock, and so on. It made the interplay between instruments physical.
And the interplay of sections is everything. The Rite is a mosaic of clashing rhythmic patterns. Modules that start and stop without conventional gestures of beginning or ending. They’re organized dramatically—a succession of contrasting moods—rather than as continuously unfolding musical themes. It’s curt and abrupt. It doesn’t wallow.
The elements are further particularized by novel harmonies and piquant instrumental colors: the strangely thin sound of the two trumpets, the weird drone of the contrabassoons. In that sense it is like Petrushka, a succession of brilliant swatches. Petrushka is a hard-edged work, but it has lots of surface glitter. The difference here is that the Rite drops all that genial folklorish bustle.
What is the Rite, in the end? A sequence of episodes of contrasting mood: slow and somber then fast and wild. Listless routine alternating with moments of ecstasy. The difference is that this isn’t Faust’s or Isolde’s Romantic ecstasy of individual realization, but something shattering, impersonal and inhuman. Instead of presenting the expansion of a soul, the Rite presents a vast factory full of noisy machines working away.
Next May will be the centennial of the Rite’s premiere. The scandal/riot has become a beloved vignette in the official mythology of modernism. But there were a lot of disorderly musical premieres around a century ago. The difference with the Rite, is that it’s the one scandalous work that has become genuinely popular. Alban Berg’s Altenberg Songs—which prompted an even more violent riot at the Musizverein in Vienna two months earlier—is lovely, but it’s never become part of the repertoire. Likewise for the Erik Satie’s delicious Parade—which would be the Russian Ballet’s big scandal a year after the Rite. They would probably still succeed in upsetting audiences today, whereas the Rite’s inescapable energy makes it about as pop as a modernist composition can be. I don’t know quite what the moral of this story is. Perhaps it’s just the coincidence that Stravinsky’s focus on rhythm mirrored the same focus in 20th century pop music. Or maybe the Rite is just that much more alive.
[Image: Natalia Goncharova, curtain design for the Coq d’Or, 1913]