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Learn About the Ballet, "The Rite of Spring" by Igor Stravinsky

The Rite of Spring: A Practice in Avant-Garde Excellence

Tentatively called Le Sacre du Printemps: tableaux de la Russie païenne en deux partie in French, The Rite of Spring was written by Russian composing great, Igor Stravinsky as a ballet work. This is an eternally well-written work of ballet which marks a pivotal point in music, and the title in Russian and French literally translates to The Coronation of Spring. The English title is essentially a reference to a pagan ritual which depicts a virgin who sacrifices herself to her death. There is also a subtitle that reads “Pictures From Pagan Russia.” 

Russian composer, Stravinsky

The Parisian Theatre des Champs-Elysées held the premiere of the ballet on the 29th of May 1913, which is reverently considered as an example of musical modernism. The brutal notes and rhythmic barbarism, mixed with the dissonant style of the whole piece are what made this such an enigma of its time. The debut, however, marred by scandal in that there was an uproar over its content and performance. The audience, both for and against it, argued loud and violently, for which the dancers couldn’t concentrate and they missed out on several orchestral cues.  

The commission on The Rite of Spring came from the then-famous Ballets Russes, specifically Serge Diaghilev. They had also commissioned Stravinsky’s previous works such as Petrushka (1911). The title was originally slated to be “The Great Sacrifice”, which was later changed, and assistance was rendered by Nicholas Roerich, an artist, and choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky. Roerich was integrally involved in the creation of the set and designs. 

The Rite of Spring is divided into two primary parts:

Part 1: Adoration of the Earth

The tune starts with an opening performance of solo bassoon that is of a high register, with the gradual introduction of woodwind instruments building up the tempo to a sudden drop. This is eventually followed by the bassoon solo again, albeit at a lower register. 

  • Introduction – This includes an orchestral note that Stravinsky identified with the sound of “a swarm of spring pipes.” 
  • Augurs of Spring – The story starts off with spring revelries where an old woman enters the scene and starts foretelling the future. 
  • Ritual of Abduction – This is where girls are seen coming from the river and begin the "Dance of the Abduction."
  • Spring Rounds – The girls dance the "Spring Rounds," a Khorovod.
  • Ritual of the Rival Tribes – We see the people form two separate groups and commence the "Ritual of the Rival Tribes."
  • Procession of the Sage: The Sage - In this segment, we can see a procession of holy men, that is led by a sage, who offers his blessings to the Earth. 
  • Kiss of the Earth – The aforementioned sage kisses the earth.
  • Dance of the Earth – This is where everyone starts dancing a passionate dance form as if becoming a part of the earth. 

Part 2: The Sacrifice

The second part of the ballet is comprised of both muted trumpets and woodwind instruments, which mark the introduction. These are accompanied by flute and string music and the follow-up transition to the "Mystic Circles" is smooth. The sacrificial woman is introduced via a loud and repetitive chord, and then, the ultimate ritual is characterized by a fully flamboyant performance of the percussion section.

  • Introduction
  • Mystic Circles of the Young Girls – We see the girls dance in a mysterious fashion, following a circular path. 
  • Glorification of the Chosen One – A girl is fatefully selected, and the event is celebrated through a dance of a martial nature. 
  • The evocation of the Ancestors – The girls then pray to their ancestors.
  • Ritual Action of the Ancestors - The chosen girl is handed over to the care of the wise men.
  • Sacrificial Dance – The final dance where the “The Chosen One” dances to her death.

A modern piece of musical novelty, The Rite of Spring was a bold venture into musical modernism by Stravinsky that absolutely contradicted the established norms of harmony. There was little to no trace of traditional compositional styles adapted by other composers. Such was the impact of this work, which would eventually have major influences on other contemporary genres such as jazz. Stravinsky also went on to make revisions to the performance sometime in the middle of the 20th century, and that version of the score is what is practiced today. 

It was Stravinsky, who himself acknowledged that his opening bassoon tune was a collection of folk songs of Lithuanian origins. He also said, however, that he was just borrowing subject matter, where some of his music also sounded like aboriginal tunes. Richard Taruskin, a famed musicologist, has also discovered that there was a song adapted by Stravinsky was one of Rimsky-Korsakov's "One Hundred Russian National Songs."

A Fateful Evening 

It is believed that Stravinsky first envisioned the idea of The Rite of Spring in 1910, a time when he was writing The Firebird, on commission from the Ballets Russes. The evening that it was supposed to have a grand opening was one of rampant audience misconducts, with many looking at the extreme departure from musical aesthetics as a madman’s work. The story is that everything started going awry right from the starting notes of the ballet, with the audience laughing and essentially shaming the high-pitched bassoon solo. There was a lot of jeers and this only got worse with each progressive phase of the event, ultimately bordering on pure disgust and ridicule. The percussive effects and jolting rhythms of The Rite of Spring only served to aggravate the tensions at the theatre. Finally, when the dancers came out to perform their part, everything started spiraling out of control. 

The audience saw dancers dressed in fanciful and unusual costumes, coupled with weird and uncontemporary moves, graceful but unexpected. The Parisian crowd went absolutely berserk, catcalling and embarrassing the performers so much that they could hardly hear the orchestra. This was followed by a scuffle, which probably involved a duel and eventually a significant riot with the audience throwing stuff at the stage. 

Despite all this, the event was completed through the evening, although hardly to its original expectations. Today, it is not entirely clear what caused the disturbance in the audience. It could have been either Stravinsky’s uncharacteristic dissonant tone of the ballet or Nijinsky’s own wild choreography. There are many who also think that this entire situation could have been a publicity stunt with numerous witnesses having testified to numerous different causes. 

Ultimately, The Rite of Spring has gone down in history as a few most revolutionary, iconic, and disputed musical pieces ever written. Stravinsky was highly praised in his time and beyond for his whimsical, yet brilliant pieces, but this particular concoction of primitivity, variation, and a total disregard for traditions, had a hugely polar reception at the beginning. Musicologists and fans collectively accept The Rite of Spring as a very influential musical revelation of the 20th century.




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