World War I represents a breakdown in civilization that might lead some to think of the national leaders who caused it as “marching morons.”
In August 1914 the nations of Europe stumbled into a four-year conflict that killed over 16 million people. In one battle alone, the Battle of the Somme, over one million soldiers died, and the combatants of that battle might have been hard-pressed to explain what they were trying to achieve.
Ravel completed La Valse shortly after World War I, and it's easy to see how some might have heard the brutality of the war in Ravel's "ascending progression of sonority." In composing music that clearly portrays the decay and destruction of the Viennese waltz, Ravel created what many can't help but hear as a metaphor for what happened in Europe from 1850 to 1918.
Follow the time indicators listed below and listen to how the elegant Viennese waltz heard at the beginning of La Valse moves through several episodes before deteriorating into confusion and despair. Even though Ravel said he did not intend to describe what had happened to Europe during World War I, it's easy to hear how some people might have heard it that way. (After listening to the orchestral version, don't forget to listen to the encore embedded at the end — a terrific version of La Valse for solo piano by Steven Osborne.)
Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
0:00 – The Mist
The music begins with a rumbling in the basses as an elegant Viennese waltz slowly emerges from the fog.
2:05 – Viennese Waltz
The waltz, played in its purest form, is introduced by the violins and eventually taken over by the full orchestra. The waltz then evolves through several episodes of its development, from graceful, sweet, and gentle to joyful and grandiose
2:49 – Episode 1
4:01 – Episode 2
4:32 – Episode 3
5:02 – Episode 4
5:52 – Episode 5
7:33 – Episode 6
8:03 – The Mist
We return to the fog from the beginning (a rebirth of the waltz) that takes us toward …
8:20 – Confusion, Part 1
A variety of instruments playing fragments of the Viennese waltz. Each fragment is played with unexpected modulations and instrumentation.
9:50 – Confusion, Part 2
The waltz begins to whirl out of control.
10:09 – Despair, Part 1
The waltz turns gloomy and gradually builds toward …
11:09 – Despair, Part 2
A Danse Macabre
12:15 – Coda
The waltz dies as the music changes from three beats per measure (waltz time) to two beats per measure (march time).
As an encore, here's a version of La Valse for solo piano.
Steven Osborne, piano
Music history — like political and economic history — also has its earth-shattering moments, the moments when everything changes. Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) changed European music forever, as did Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (1805) and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1865). All three of those works shook the foundations of music and made it difficult for composers to continue using the traditional "rules" of composition that had preceded them. Another such moment in music history came on May 29, 1913, when The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
The first performance of The Rite of Spring caused such an uproar that most accounts of the audience’s reaction refered to it as a “riot.” Even though the ballet’s unusual choreography may have had as much to do with causing a commotion as the music, we cannot avoid describing The Rite of Spring as one of the most significant and influential pieces of music ever composed.
The Rite of Spring was the third ballet by Stravinsky for the Ballets Russes. Sergei Diaghilev, a Russian art critic and entrepreneur, created the Ballet Russes in 1909 when he brought Russian ballet dancers to Paris. Employing the finest dancers in the world, Diaghilev gained much fame combining music, scenery, costumes, acting, and drama into what Richard Wagner had once described as “Artwork of the Future.”
During the first season of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev produced performances of classic ballets with music by Chopin and Rimsky-Korsakov. During the second season, however, Diaghilev scheduled performances with new music. The first ballet commissioned by Diaghilev with new music was The Firebird by Stravinsky. At the time, Stravinsky was an unknown Russian composer, a former pupil of the great Rimsky-Korsakov.
The Firebird, which premiered in June 1910, became a hit, leading Diaghilev to commission another ballet from Stravinsky. That ballet, titled Petrushka, made Stravinsky an international star and Diaghilev asked Stravinsky for a third ballet — The Rite of Spring. At its premiere the audience was full of aristocrats and celebrities, and Paris was primed for a major social event. Little did the audience know they were about to make history by witnessing an event that would scandalize Paris and revolutionize the language of music.
Pablo Picasso's sketch of Stravinsky
The Rite of Spring paints a picture of a primitive and pagan world, a version of primeval human beings paying tribute to nature with rituals related to spring. During the ballet, a young virgin is selected for sacrifice and then dances herself to death.
Parisian painters had already been influenced by primitive art and had created a new artistic style known as Fauvism. “Fauvists” (or “Brutes”) painted with wild brush strikes and jarring colors. The Rite of Spring might be described in the same terms. The combination of modernist music and dancing went far beyond what some members of the audience at the premier performance were willing to accept.
Carl Van Vechten, an American writer and photographer, attended the premier and later describe the chaos in his book Music After the War.
“A certain part of the audience, thrilled by what it considered to be a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art, and swept away with wrath, began very soon after the rise of the curtain to whistle, to make catcalls, and to offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed. Others of us who liked the music and felt that the principles of free speech were at stake bellowed defiance. The orchestra played on unheard, except occasionally when a slight lull occurred. The figures on the stage danced in time to music that they had to imagine they heard, and beautifully out of rhythm with the uproar in the auditorium. I was sitting in a box in which I had rented one seat. Three ladies sat in front of me, one young man occupied the place behind me. He stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was laboring, thanks to the potent force of the music, betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time. They were perfectly synchronized with the music.”
In addition to Van Vecthen’s description, other well-known stories from that evening illustrate the controversial nature of the ballet.
- A woman who was enjoying the performance stood up and spat in the face of a man who didn't like the music.
- Another woman who was also enjoying the performance was seated in a theater box . When a boobird in the box next to her got on her nerves she reached into his box and slapped his face. Her escort then challenged the boobird to a duel.
- The Princesse de Pourtalès walked out of the theater exclaiming, “I am sixty years old, but this is the first time that anyone dared to make a fool of me!”
- The ambassador from Austria sneered and laughed out loud.
- Music critic André Capu screamed that the music was a fraud.
- Composer and music critic Alexis Roland-Manuel loudly defended the music, causing a protestor to tear the collar from his shirt.
- Police came to the theater in large numbers and arrested over 40 people.
Byron Hollinshead has edited a pair of books titled I Wish I'd Been There in which distinguished historians answer the question, “What scene or incident in history would you most liked to have witnessed? Although I can think of several historical events I would like to have witnessed, the premier performance of The Rite of Spring would be near the top of my list.
If I had been at that performance, I would have wanted to attend as neutral observer, someone who was not taking sides. I would have wanted to watch that performance knowing what we know over 100 years later, fully cognizant of how much Stravinsky’s music was changing everything that came after. I wish I'd been there to see what it looks like when the world is shaken to its core and everything begins moving in a different direction.
Music Outline for The Rite of Spring (LeSacre du Pintemps)
The two animated scores embedded below are among the best I have seen. The animations come from Stephen Malinowski and Jay Bacal at Music Animation Machine. I find their work on The Rite of Spring riveting and thrilling. NPR called them "mind blowing."
Based on a recording rendered by Jay Bacal using virtual instrument software from Vienna Symphonic Library.
Part One: Adoration of the Earth
0:06 | 1. Introduction
3:18 | 2. Augurs of Spring (Dance of the Adolescents): The celebration of spring begins in the hills. Pipers play music and young men tell fortunes.
6:26 | 3. Game of the Abduction: An old woman enters. She knows the mystery of nature and begins to predict the future. Young girls with painted faces come in from the river in single file and begin the spring dance.
7:48 | 4. Spring Rounds: The young girls dance the “Spring Rounds.”
11:22 | 5. Games of the Rival Tribes: The people divide into two groups opposing each other and begin the “Games of the Rival Tribes.”
13:08 | 6. Entrance of the Wise Man: The holy procession enters with the wise elders led by the Wise Man.
13:48 | 7. The Wise Man: The Wise Man interrupts the spring games and the people tremble as the he blesses the earth.
14:09 | 8. Dance to the Earth: The people dance passionately and become one with the earth.
Based on a recording rendered by Jay Bacal using virtual instrument software from Vienna Symphonic Library.
Part Two: The Sacrifice
0:15 | 9. Introduction
4:54 | 10. Mysterious Circles of the Adolescents: At night, the adolescent girls engage in mysterious games, walking in circles.
8:10 | 11. Glorification of the Chosen One: One of the girls — a virgin — is selected as the Chosen One after being twice caught in a perpetual circle. The adolescent girls honor her with a marital dance.
9:36 | 12. Evocation of the Ancestors: The adolescent girls invoke their ancestors in a brief dance.
10:30 | 13. Ritual of the Ancestors: The Chosen One is entrusted to the care of the old wise men.
14:06 | 14. Ritual Dance of the Chosen One: The Chosen One performs a sacrificial dance and dances herself to death in the presence of the old wise men.
– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Music can cleanse a melancholy soul and calm a cluttered mind. It can cause you to weep tears of joy, and you won’t even know what is affecting you so deeply.
None of that is hyperbole. The power of music is mystical — especially classical music.
A listener might know nothing about classical music and still feel an emotional rush when listening to the crescendo at the end of a symphony. However, classical music is more enjoyable when the listener possesses some fundamental knowledge of music and the “story” it is telling. All told, the more someone knows, the better the music will sound.
As an example, listen to the video I’ve embedded below and follow the time indicators. What you will hear can be classified as sonata form, but there’s no reason at this time to get too technical. Simply think of each theme as a “character” in a story and then follow that story’s narrative as if you were reading a book or watching a movie.
Prokofiev, Symphony No. 1, First Movement (1917) conducted by Leo Siberski
0:07 – Theme 1: The opening theme begins in the key of D major. Since it is in a major key, it should sound bright and upbeat. (A minor key would probably sound dark and downbeat.)
1:04 – Theme 2: Think of this theme, composed in A major, as the second character in the story.
1:57 – Development: Think of this section as one containing much action. Something is happening. Close your eyes and imagine the movie in your head. You should be able to hear bits and pieces of the first two themes.
3:08 – Theme 1 Returns in C Major: Notice that this theme has emerged from the development in a major key (happy and upbeat). It looks like everything will end on a positive note. (No pun intended.)
3:43 – Theme 2 Returns in D Major: Hearing this theme in D major should make you feel that you are back where you began. All is well.
4:13 – Coda: This section tells us that the piece is over. (The word “coda” is Italian for “tail.”)
Not so bad, eh? Watch this video more than once. Watch it often enough that you become so familiar with the music that you will know what is coming next. Indeed, the more you listen, the better the music will sound.
It’s been said that we use art to decorate space and music to decorate time. The time spent understanding this short piece should provide you with time that has been well decorated.
© 2015 James L. Smith