A piece of music that was so far ahead of its time, not even those playing it knew what to make of it. Rod McPhee on The Rite of Spring.
It’s been almost a century since Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary composition made its controversial debut in Paris, yet it still challenges audiences around the world.
Back in 1913 The Rite of Spring almost caused a riot on the night of its premiere, and though they don’t expect such a strong reaction when the score is performed (minus the ballet element) in Leeds, it is always guaranteed to provoke an emotional response wherever it’s played.
“You can completely understand all of what happened in that first performance,” says Philip Moore, one of the two pianists who’ll be performing the piece at the Howard Assembly Room next month. “Even 99 years on it still has an incredible impact.
“As a listener there’s a brutality to it. That’s not to say everything in the piece is ugly, but some things are so raw and primeval about it. It’s basically full of a kind of driving emotional thrust which has a huge energy and, as a performer and a listener, there’s nothing saccharin or pretty about it.”
The culture lovers of Paris were stunned when Russian composer Stravinsky unveiled his latest work, so much so that from the moment the music and ballet began, the audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées were unsettled, and by the end of the performance they were in uproar. Not surprisingly, the night has gone down in musical folklore.
The Rite of Spring – which didn’t even boast a specific narrative – represented such a departure from so many traditions of composition, as did the choreography which accompanied it on stage, that it marked a real turning point for 20th century music.
Moore says: “Even as a musician the piece is a monumental milestone in composition and one of the most influential works from that period. It’s something that’s very prominent in the musical field.
“From the start there is the repetitive nature of some of the rhythms, which are very irregular. Melodically it sounds like something spoken or sung, almost in a folk music style – it’s not refined, it is very raw and has a very direct effect on the listener in a very deep way.
“At the time, you could see where music was heading and where it was coming from. But this piece was another few stages on, before its time really. It took music a long way further than anyone was expecting – that’s why audiences were so shocked – they just hadn’t heard anything so extreme.”
The response became the stuff of legend. The story was even turned into a BBC drama in 2009, Riot at the Rite, which chronicled the creative process of the score and ballet and recreated the malaise which developed after it was unveiled to the public. Even for those involved in each of the stages of that creative process, the piece offered a baffling experience and for modern musicians it remains a challenge to play, but not an insurmountable one.
“Part of the reason for the riots was that they simply couldn’t play the music,” says Moore. “It was such a big shift in terms of style that the orchestra players didn’t have the exposure to those rhythms. They couldn’t put that piece together and hold it together.
“Now it doesn’t seem that difficult rhythmically, but for an orchestra at that time it certainly was difficult because they just didn’t have that repertoire to draw on for comparison.
“It’s still not an easy piece now, but for a good orchestra it’s not unplayable the way it was in 1913.”
An added challenge for Moore and his partner, Simon Crawford-Phillips, was tackling Stravinsky’s version of The Rite of Spring specifically created for the piano. If it’s difficult for a large orchestra to hold together, imagine the task facing two men and two Steinways.
“It is shattering to play,” says Moore, “and not just because of the physical nature of playing it, but also because it’s such a relentless piece. There’s a drive at the beginning that doesn’t let up until the end, so mentally it’s also a drain – it might be 35 minutes long but when you’re playing it, time gets squashed. It feels very quick actually.
“I wouldn’t say it’s easier compared to a full orchestra because you have a narrower field of colour and volume. It defines the limits of the instruments.”
Debussy and Bartok added to programme
Philip Moore and Simon Crawford-Philips will perform The Rite of Spring and two other pieces: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune for two pianos by Debussy and Sonata for two pianos and percussion by Bartok.
The latter two performances will be performed alongside percussionists Marney O’Sullivan and Chris Bradley.
Howard Assembly Room, New Briggate, Leeds, September 22, 7.30pm, £15, Tel 0844 8482700 www.operanorth.co.uk/howard-assembly-room