There were some statements made in this article that need refining (in my opinion). Some might say that I’m splitting hairs, but I really didn’t feel that this article painted an accurate picture of what is going on in this piece (at least, not by Straight Dope’s usual exhaustive standards). Also, the article perpetuates some myths that have been floating around for years that have nothing to do with the author.
The music is polyharmonic, polymodal, and polytonal, exploiting the
maximum melodic and dynamic range of each instrument,
This is not really the case. The contrabassoons (there are two), and most of the bassoons, never get to their very lowest, or their very highest registers (other than the 1st bassoon, which stays high, but doesn't go very low). I couldn't tell you about every other instrument, but I'll bet any money that not all of them exploit their maximum ranges. Some of them, yes, but not all. Dynamically, even, things technically are not pushed that far if you look at Stravinsky's markings. Perusing the score, things seem to stay between pp and fff. Tchaikovsky indicates, in his sixth symphony, ppppp at one point. Even the infamous 11/4 bar is only marked ff and f (in my Dover score, at least). It's all relative, I suppose, but I feel that the articulation, rhythm, and orchestration have as much to do with the brutality as does sheer volume.
and the rhythms change constantly: the
climax has measures in a sequence of 9/8 - 5/8 - 3/8 - 2/4 - 7/4 - 3/4 - 7/4 - 3/8 - 2/4 -7/8 - 3/8 -
5/8. Common adjectives used to describe the piece are chaotic, brutal, and savage. Performers
lovingly refer to it as Stravinsky’s “rape of the orchestra.”
I could just be stupid, but I've performed in this twice (once last month), and talked of it quite a bit with other performers of various levels, and I've never heard this from another performer (never heard it period, but it's probably in some book). Many of us do love it, but I think that most would characterize something like Varese or Xenakis as being much closer to a rape of the orchestra.
One music critic of the time wrote that Igor
was an “iconoclast out to destroy all the most sacred canons of musical aesthetics and grammar.”
There’s one section with 11 repetitions of one chord, where the people playing them count the beats
by thinking each syllable of “I - gor - Stra - vin - sky - is - a - son -of - a - bitch.”
Never heard, or thought, this one either. Most people are concentrating too intently (or they SHOULD be) to be playing stupid mental games like this. Frankly, most performers (there are dissenters) love the piece and are thankful that Stravinsky wrote it.
In the context it was originally joined with, the music is actually pretty apt. The plot has nothing to
with dinosaurs (Disney’s Fantasia added that touch), but is about primitive tribes who gather to
celebrate spring. There’s a village witch who sees the future, a wedding, and gathering of the village
council or something. Then, the virgins dance at the foot of the hill and choose a victim to be honored
for sacrifice. The climax is the virgin sacrifice–she is forced to dance until she dies from exhaustion.
Now, imagine you’re in 1913 Paris, and this was, remember, a ballet.
What happened was, even before the curtain went up, people were murmuring at the orchestral
intro. It’s a bassoon solo, so high in the instrument’s range that listeners debated what instrument was
playing it. Camillle Saint-Saens walked out almost immediately, complaining (aloud) about
Stravinsky’s misuse of the instrument.
Here I have no problem with the writer, but just wanted to debunk a myth (or at least try). The solo is not actually all that high in the instrument’s range. It ascends to a D. Ludwig Milde’s “Concert Studies, Op. 26” from the 1800’s already ascends this high, as does Julius Weissenborn’s (1837-1888) “Six Trios for Three Bassoons” (and in the trios you need to tongue the D without preparation). The Rite came at least 30 years after this (estimating). Bassoonists were long used to that register. Further, Stravinsky himself previously took the bassoon up to a D in “Petrouchka” and in the “Firebird” of 1910 took it to an Eb. The only novelty in Le Sacre was the context…it was extremely exposed. And as for Saint-Saens, I don’t know why he should have complained. The French were the ones who always showed an affinity for high bassoon parts. And sure enough, not even ten years later, Saint-Saens took the bassoon regularly up to C, and at one point up to an E, in his solo bassoon sonata.
I guess what I’m trying to debunk here is the myth that this solo is so extremely high. It is high, but even for that time period it wasn’t extreme, as most people contend.
But anyway. The curtain comes up, and the audience sees
what Stravinsky describes as a bunch of “knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and
down,” wearing, as far as I can tell, nothing but brown burlap costumes. Immediately, some of the
audience starts yelling “what the hell?” And part of the audience yells back, “shut up, this is cool,”
and it escalated from there.
Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes, who had also commissioned the piece, had instructed
the dancers, after over 100 rehearsals, to “keep calm and carry on” no matter what. Stravinsky
wrote, “During the whole performance I was at [the choreographer] Nijinsky’s side in the wings. He
was standing on a chair, screaming ‘sixteen, seventeen, eighteen’–they had their own method of
counting to keep time. Naturally the poor dancers could hear nothing by reason of the row in the
auditorium and the sound of their own dance steps. I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes, for he was
furious, and ready to dash on to the stage at any moment and create a scandal. Diaghileff [sic] kept
ordering the electricians to turn the lights on or off, hoping in that way to put a stop to the noise. That
is all I can remember about that first performance.”
Some eyewitness accounts: Carl van Vechten: “a certain part of the audience was 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 make cat-calls and to offer audible suggestions as to
how the performance should proceed. The orchestra played unheard, except occasionally when a
slight lull occurred. The young man seated behind me in the box stood up during the course of the
ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was labouring
betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on top of my head with his fists. My
emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time.”
Romola Pulsky (later Nijinsky’s wife): “One beautifully dressed lady in an orchestra box stood up
and slapped the face of a young man who was hissing in the next box. Her escort arose, and cards
were exchanged between the men.”
Towards the end of the ballet, just before the beginning of the “Sacrificial Dance,” as the hitherto
motionless figure of the Chosen Victim [a virgin] was seen to be seized by growing paroxysms of
trembling, Marie Rambert heard the gallery call out “Un docteur . . . un dentiste . . . deux docteurs!”
and so on.
I was taught in music history that the whole thing was probably Nijinsky’s fault. James Lyons, editor
of the American Record Guide wrote: “for the first performance (Nijinsky) provided a wretched
scrap of choreography about which the less said the better.” In his autobiography Stravinsky wrote:
“I must say here and now that the idea of working with Nijinsky filled me with misgiving,
notwithstanding our friendliness and my great admiration for his talent as a dancer and mime. His
ignorance of the most elementary notions of music was flagrant. The poor boy knew nothing of
On the other hand, Diaghilev’s biographer Richard Buckle advances the idea that this was all
planned, at least in a loose sense. Sensing the “bejewelled Parisian public of the stalls and boxes”
wouldn’t really get this whole virgin sacrifice deal, Diaghilev gave out free passes to “artists, students,
and ‘fans’ who were prepared to align themselves with Diaghilev on his boldest charges into battle
against the old guard.” One notable quote heard in the tumult was a chant from the free-ticket section
to some grand dames wailing in the audience: “Shut up, bitches of the sixteenth!” Jean Cocteau wrote
that “All the elements of a scandal were present. The smart audience with tails and tulle, diamonds
and ospreys, was interspersed with the suits and bandeaux of the aesthetic crowd. The latter would
applaud novelty simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes . . . The audience played
the role that was written for it.”
After Part I of the ballet, the house lights were put on so the police could carry out the people
making all the trouble, but as soon as Part II started, the clamor returned, and didn’t abate until the
end. In this case, the “riot” was confined to the theater, and did end with the close of the
performance. Afterward, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and Nijinsky grabbed a cab to get some dinner, and
although they were said to be weeping over dinner, Diaghilev’s comment on the evening became
famous: “It was just what I wanted.”
I agree that Stravinsky knew exactly what was going to happen, and was anything but depressed over the result. He was a showman and knew the value of a scandal, and he achieved a fame and notoriety that lasted him the rest of his long life.
The piece can be heard in two parts (hey, it’s a long piece) at
It's actually not all that long (relative to the rest of the repertory). It clocks in at just over a half hour. Even Eroica is about fifty minutes. Mahler's second symphony, from around the turn of the century, dwarfs Le Sacre at well over an hour in length.