Listening Log Part Two ~ Twentieth-century Music

Igor Stravinsky’s ~

Le Sacre du printemps  Весна священная

I couldn’t tell you exactly when I first heard the Rite of Spring. It was always there… the piano player at my ballet school in Gothenburg, Sweden was a Stravinsky fan. Perhaps this is how I first came in contact with it.

I was born and grew up in Sweden, a child of Serbian immigrants. My musical upbringing was a mixture of both Western and Eastern music. I have always been drawn to composers who combine both traditions. Stravinsky is one of those composers. To this day I simultaneously experience a strong sense of familiarity and an equally strong sense of exoticism whenever I listen to it.

The Rite of Spring tells the story of a girl being sacrificed to the god of spring. According to Stravinsky the idea came to him in a vision;

‘I had a fleeting vision which came to me as a complete surprise, my mind at the moment being full of other things. I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring. Such was the theme of the Sacre du Printemps.’  Igor Stravinsky

The Rite had been commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballet Russes company. Diaghilev’s influence at the time was enormous and he helped propel many a composer to stardom, but the road to putting on the Rite was a rocky one. Diaghilev demanded that his principal dancer and then lover Nijinsky, choreograph the ballet to the Rite. Nijinsky was an inexperienced choreographer and musically uneducated. According to Stravinsky he struggled with setting the dance movements in time to the music. This had the effect of a very disjointed and bizarre performance. The absurd choreography was met with outrage and near-rioting at the 1913 Paris premier and has become the stuff of legend.

As frustrating and infuriating as this must have been for Stravinsky, it did mean a huge amount of publicity. In some ways it was a stroke of genius. Malcom McLaren couldn’t have orchestrated it any better! 


After I started writing music myself the Rite of Spring became an ever larger presence in my consciousness and I decided to study it in an analytical way. The bitonality and the polyrhythms fascinated me and offered interesting alternatives to the usual harmonic movement served up by more conventional composers. I attended one of Pierre Boulez’ masterclasses about the piece. It was an eyeopening and informative lecture. He talked about the stacking of chords on top of each other, creating chromaticism from simple diatonic chords. Chords were also created using the Octatonic scale (or a version thereof). According to the Russian composer and Stravinsky’s former teacher, Rimsky Korsakoff, the use of the Octatonic scale when writing a magical theme was already a known technique used by older Russian composers. In that way, Stravinsky did fit within the Russian tradition and show his influences such as Glinka and Mussogorsky.

He used folk melodies in the piece, for instance, the Lithuanian wedding melody ‘quoted’ in the high bassoon part. To my ears the Eb Clarinet part in the Spring Rounds section gives a Moorish or ‘mock-Moorish’ flavour. The use of other auxiliary instruments such as tam-tams also add to the ritualistic and pagan impression of the piece.

This brings me to the topic of Impressionism. Stravinsky is often contrasted and set apart from his peers who were composing Impressionistic music at the time. The differences are obvious, but in my opinion there are similarities too. Even though Stravinsky took his rhythmical ideas further, you can hear innovation in terms of rhythm, or at the very least, in terms of ‘time’ in Debussy’s Jeux. The use of very small melodic themes or cells are also already present in Jeux. In my view it could be argued that the Rite of Spring was in fact an Impressionistic piece of music pushed to an extreme conclusion. Stravinsky himself stated that Jeux was one of the two pieces he was listening to at the time of writing the Rite.

To me, the sonority of the Rite is of central importance. It evokes such a sense of threat and violence. The violence of the pagan ritual hurtling towards inevitable doom. It’s a ferocious fated funeral procession. The girl passionately dancing her way to her own inevitable death.

The ’Augurs of Spring’ chord forms the heart of this sonority and is therefore the heart of the entire composition.

Augures Chord

Perhaps the the lack of harmonic movement is what puts across the inevitability of her death. No matter how much we’re physically propelled forward by the irregular meter and polyrhythms created by layering and slightly shifting ostinati pattern- emotionally we keep returning to this one immovable, static chord. A sensation similar to being frozen in fear.

Attempts have been made to analyse this chord using both diatonic theory and theories based on the octatonic scale. It does however not completely fit into any one theory. I believe it is a truly unique creation and does not in fact progress in any traditional harmonic sense. Stravinsky himself chooses to describe it as polytonality, i.e. several keys playing at once, superimposed on each other. Whether any of the chords within these separate keys actually resolve and progress within their own tonality is debatable, but it is nevertheless the most useful explanation.

Perhaps current music theory still lacks a complex enough model to adequately describe his composition. Our brains perceive patterns. Pattern recognition is how we understand the world around us. Stravinsky sets up enough patterns for our brains to recognise and therefore string together and perceive as interconnected. There is symmetry at the core of nature, on a fractal and molecular level. It can be hard to perceive the symmetry when ‘zoomed out’. Looking at a tree, we don’t necessarily perceive a number of repetitions but they are in fact there, on a cellular level. The smaller the ‘repetition cells’ are, the more complex the theory to explain it.

This doesn’t mean that there is no underlying structure or connectivity. I believe that if there was no underlying structure or connectivity in the Rite, we would not be able to enjoy the piece of music or indeed relate to it as music at all.