“Sacre du printemps” was an explosion, violent and terrifying and ominous, in the midst of an exhausted society. It was not only a sensation such as Paris (Theitre des Champs Rlysees, May 29, 1913) had not experienced for many years; it appears now almost as a pre-war token of catastrophe, and it was so potent and unshackled that it provided ideas for European music of the next two decades. This latter fact was amusingly evident in America, which was much longer than is usually the case in hearing a novelty by a European composer. The reason for the delay was the literal riot that occurred at the premiere of the “Sacre,” which frightened our visiting conductors. In Paris the piece was greeted with hisses, cheers, and physical violence in the audience. Pierre Monteux, who conducted, though he became conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the season of 1919-1922, waited until 1974 to present it to audiences of Boston and New York. The event proved that he need not have waited. The music which he presented magnificently, was received with immense acclaim.
In the meantime, between 1913 and 1922 all sorts of new music had come over from Europe. Experiments with polyliarmony, polytonality and with new rhythmic combinations astonished and captivated us. And then we heard the “Sacre du printemps” and knew at once that this was the treasure house from which Stravinsky’s contemporaries, to the enrichment of their art, if not to the impoverishment of his, had helped themselves with both hands and this with the air of those giving birth to new ideas. With “Oiseau de feu” and “Petrouchka” our young Russian had shown himself first a youthful promise and then a commanding talent; with “Sacre du printemps” he became the leading figure among the creative musicians of his epoch.
Sir Oliver Lodge said that there was sufficient energy in an atom, if released, to blow a battleship from its place in the ocean to a mountain-top. A portion of this dynamite seems to inhabit Stravinsky’s score. Despite which, one can feel desolate in the presence of this sterile force, which is without the shadow of humanity, or the remotest suggestion of sentiment, and which, for lack of such fertilizing emotion, becomes perverse, exasperated, sadistic. The music then appears as the vicious outburst of an overstrained civilization. “The primitive man? The super-ape!” cried one of Stravinsky’s colleagues. It is too soon to appraise this music, or even try to. It is also worth remembering that Stravinsky’s emotion is ‘not of the sentimental or romantic description, and that there is one passage, at least, in “Sacre du printemps” which grips us because of its half-articulate sadness and mystery. That is the introduction to the second part. There, in a strange iron twilight, the earth, helpless in its fertility, seems itself to fear and to lament the end-less cycle of deaths and resurrections to come. Elsewhere is a super-dynamism, and a force, so to speak, partly chemical, partly physical, with very little suggestion of feeling, of which Stravinsky, anyhow, is intolerant. (At least in the “romantic” sense of ‘the word.) The drums of the final pages, with their brutal and terrific impact, strike ears and nerves like bullets.
This is an interesting characteristic of the “Sacre”: that whereas all the other ballet music that Stravinsky wrote is heard to the best advantage with the stage spectacle, the “Sacre du printemps,” so far as any choreography thus far presented is concerned, is at its best in purely symphonic performance. Such an impression squares with remarks,of Stravinsky himself. He told Michel George-Michel that the theme which made the basis of the composition came to him as a purely musical conception while he was writing, the “Fire-Bird.” (As a matter of fact, the precise notes of the initial theme are contained in Mussorgsky’s opera, “The Fair at Sorochinsky.”) Stravinsky continued: “As this theme, with that which followed, was conceived in a strong, brutal manner, I took as a ,pretext for developments, for the evocation of this music, the Russian prehistoric epoch, since I am a Russian. But note well that this idea came from the music; the music did not come from the idea. My work is architectonic, not anecdotical; objective, not descriptive construction.”
According to this, then, story and choreography of the ballet were superimposed, after the conception of the music.
“The Consecration of Spring,” in its official capacity, is concerned with prehistoric ceremonies held by ancient man to make the earth fertile by the sacrifice of a human victim. The first part of the work is called “The Earth’s Fertility” and the second part “The Sacrifice.”
The slow introduction is supposed to imply “the mystery of the physical world in Spring.” The tone color of solo bassoon, later combined with horn and clarinets, has itself a hieratic quality. Wind-instruments predominate, a prophecy of Stravinsky’s growing devotion to wood and brass, and in place of the more pliant and illusory strings. The curtain rises, and the rhythmic incantation begins. This is called in the score the “Dance of the Adolescents.” The accents are vigorous and irregular. Youths and maidens stamp the earth. The dance becomes more violent, and a part of this ritual is a mock abduction of a maiden. “Ronde de printergps””Spring Rounds.” There is a pause, a breathing place, while a quaint theme sung in unison by clarinets and bass clarinets is accompanied by trills of the flutes. A solemn new rhythm, with strong and bitter harmonies, introduces another dance. The trumpets, with sharp, grinding harmonies, or poly-harmonies, chant a version of a theme already heard, a sort of primitive song of homage. Then come the “Game of Rival Towns” and the “Procession of the Sage,” when an old white-haired, white-bearded man prostrates himself, and all kiss the ground and rise and dance to music of frenetic power.
The second part of the ballet begins with the music , of groping mystery to which reference has been made. “Mystic Circle of the Adolescents”: girls dance, and one of them is chosen for the sacrifice. There are passages of “Glorification,” “Evocation of Ancestors,” “Ritual Performances of the Ancestors.” Then a circle forms about her, the victim lashes herself to the final frenzy. The rhythms become convulsive, disintegrating. She falls, to the beatings and shriekings of Stravinsky’s orchestra. The score is a marvelous study in rhythmical and harmonic developments. While the music sounds, no one at all senaible to its force can doubt it. When it was heard in New York for the first time in 1924, there were reviewers who confidently and rapturously announced a new masterpiece for the ages, and few were the pens that restrained their praise,
Since that time Stravinsky has diverged almost completely from the tendencies that the “Sacre” represented. Is this an advance or a retrogression? The time has not come to attempt to answer tLt question, or, indeed, to put into the pages of a book gratuitous prophecy of the future that lies concealed in our period.