Your First Time and Subsequent Obsession with The Rite of Spring

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Monday, May 13, 2013

It has occurred to me that I may have thought about The Rite of Spring, if only fleetingly, at least once every day since I first heard it at the age of four. I'm not talking about deep, philosophical contemplation, but an embedded flash of recognition, as you might subliminally recall a landmark visible from the backyard of your childhood.

After years of being obsessed with it, not being obsessed with it, following the eternal Stravinsky v. Schoenberg aesthetic death thread in all its exhaustive permutations, and even beginning to think of The Rite as just another old masterpiece, I come back to how primal it is. It's about nature, the body, urgently repeated rhythms, bright colors, folk songs, excitement and shock, beauty and mystery.

It's an incredibly fun listen, every section and every soloist has amazing things to do, and the conductor has an obstacle course of choices in balancing (like which one of these six things do we really want them to hear? All of them?) and pacing (do we go for the kill here or here?) And that is why it is so much fun to listen to different recordings of it.

The stereo LP of Stravinsky conducting (pictured above) was one of my prized possessions as a kid, and it's still a great one, but there are scores of recordings that light it up. I will present a hand-picked dozen or so of what seem to be the very best, or most interesting and exciting of all, along with commentary, not only by me, but from an assortment of our world's most vital composers, players and presenters, all telling you what The Rite means to them.

I also want to know what The Rite means to you. Do you have any special memories connected to the music? A favorite recording? What was it like the first time you heard the piece? Leave your stories in the comments section below and, time permitting, I'll include them Wednesday, May 29 during our centennial marathon.


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Comments [16]

Pater from new mexico

The first time I heard this as a kid I thought, "What on earth am I listening to? This makes absolutely no sense" and turned it off immediately. As I grew older and learned more about music, I became more appreciative of the piece and it has become one of my favorites. And now I understand the crazyness of it and enjoy listening to it. The first time I'd actually saw the ballet I was like 'WOW', that was amazing, but a little weird... I LIKE IT! I have a question of my own if anyone could answer it: What is the name of the russian folk tune that Stravinsky used as the bassoon solo?

Jun. 15 2013 06:05 AM

Although I first heard "The Rite of Spring" as a child from the 1941 "Fantasia", the piece never left a real, longstanding impression on me, until I followed the 2007 football season till the very end. Almost immediately afterwards, I was able to create a one-to-one correspondence between the parts of the piece and the events of the most amazing football season ever, and here is how it looked:

Introduction: Summer before the preseason: a team is about to start a football season while struggling with a scandal
Augurs of Spring: "Spring Training": generic scenes of football players training
Ritual of Abduction: First preseason games
Spring Rounds through Mystic Circles: the regular season through the penultimate game. Despite ups and downs, the team goes through undefeated
Glorification of the Chosen One: An intensive season finale
Evocation of the Ancestors: The team narrowly leads (wins 38-35) but comes out showing signs of fatigue. Furthermore, both they and their opponents will be in the Postseason. Still, the goal of a perfect regular season has been achieved
Ritual Action of the Ancestors: Postseason. The team marches through even as the margin of victory deteriorates and ultimately to...
Sacrificial Dance: ... to the Superbowl... against their opponents in the regular season finale... despite the hard resistance, the team commits multiple errors (even letting the opponents score the first touchdown), the opponents score what would ultimately be the winning touchdown with 35 seconds to spare (making the team trail the opponents by 14-17), and 33 seconds later, as demonstrated in the last notes of the ballet, the quarterback makes a desperate pass, only to see it knocked down by the opponents. This loss crushes the team's hope for a Superbowl title and for a perfect 19-0 season; it would go from 18-0 to 18-1

Relevant chanting often occurred after I finished hearing the piece! I'm sure many of fans among you will know which teams were involved this football ballet

May. 28 2013 11:57 PM
Jamie Conrad from Alexandria

Late one Friday or Saturday night in the mid-70s when I was around 16 or so a bunch of us were hanging around in an older friend's apartment doing the illicit sorts of things one did at that age, listening to an album-rock FM station. At some point when no one seemed to be paying attention to the music and I was really bored with it I tuned the dial to a classical station and was instantly riveted by the bizarre, thrashing, other-worldly music it was playing. The others all responded immediately with outrage and scorn -- even a friend who was obsessed with Frank Zappa and, if anyone, I thought, should have appreciated whatever this mysterious stuff was. I more or less barricaded the dial and so they all left for another room or another venue altogether, but I sat there in the dark, completely transfixed and transported, until it ended. As soon as the announcer explained what it was, I realized that this was the same guy who wrote the music that plays at the beginning of Yessongs (as another commenter has noted), so I quickly snapped up both and then Petrushka. My younger brothers still recall their perplexed fascination as I forsook Lou Reed or Genesis to blast, at top volume, this weird music that seemed to have no referents whatsoever, and which you could barely sing or tap your foot to. I don't listen to it a lot now, as with most music that I don't want to wear out, but I continue to marvel at how utterly original, organic and ingenious it remains.

May. 28 2013 10:26 PM
Constantine from Constantine

(Please let this go through only once, for once. If not, please delete all but one of it.)

I don't know that it is an "obvious fact that the first half is a lot better, tighter, more musically constructed than the second half." There are those who think just the opposite. (See the article in Wikipedia, for example (one of their better ones, at least at the moment).) I will agree that the conclusion is a trifle lame. I can't see anyone dancing herself to death to it. Stravinsky himself was displeased with it and revised it several times.

May. 20 2013 11:03 PM
J.B.Lee from Hugheston, West Virginia

I came to the RITE too late to be dazzled; I had already been well indoctrinated into modern music through Bartok, Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Subotnick, Honegger, Varese and many others. And I'd heard FIREBIRD, having had my curiosity piqued by Isao Tomita's electronic version of the piece, as well as Yes' use of it as prelude-to-concert. So I was impressed, but not astonished, when I finally got around to hearing it, on a CBS disc, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. It was the source of much of what I'd already encountered...

May. 20 2013 05:52 PM
Oscar from Newark, New Jersey

First time I've heard the Rite was during a music history class in high school. I've only heard an excerpt of it, the nature of the piece made me research it for myself. Afterward, it became my first quasi-atonal piece I loved. Favorite recording: Salonen/LA Phil. It was during the time when the Walt Disney Concert Hall open. The hall plus the taste of a great conductor really brought out the best in the Rite

May. 19 2013 07:29 PM
Matt Hahne from Sunnyvale, CA

I first heard the "Rite" at the age of 6 in New York City,
at a showing of "Fantasia", probably in 1941. The music/movie had a major influence on me: I became a lifelong fan of classical music and of science,
at first of dinosaurs and paleontology, evolving into a career in
physics and mathematics.

May. 19 2013 12:32 AM
Rafi from Brooklyn

I first heard the Sacre as a teenage jazzfan in the the mid-'60s, which is to say that I was already listening to some serious music—Trane, Ornette, Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Cecil Taylor. I'd heard about the 'Rite' here and there in jazz magazines, so one day I picked up the 1958 Leonard Bernstein recording with the NY Philharmonic at the record department at Korvettes, in part because of the groovy cover art, and when I put it on the Silvertone hi-fi it was love at first listen. I was trying to figure out how to be a jazz drummer at the time, so the emphasis on rhythm was a plus; as for Lenny's conduction of the piece, it still sounds pretty great to me, though I've got an online radio show and have usually moved over to Gergiev's more recently recorded, nearly identical performance; and this year, once the weather had warmed enough to convince me that spring had sprung, I put Stravinsky's brisk, no-nonsense version with the "Columbia Symphony Orchestra" on this week's show. Age has not weathered, nor custom staled the Sacre's considerable variety, and ain't done nothing to diminish its epoch-making drive. I can't remember ever having tired of the piece these nigh on fifty years, though no one ever seems to mention the obvious fact that the first half is a lot better, tighter, more musically constructed than the second half made necessary by the narrative content of the ballet. At least folks have got around to saying that the riot at the premiere probably had more to do with the choreography than the composition. So, okay, renewal of the earth, a prophecy, via climactic human sacrifice, of the oncoming century's serial savageries: not bad for a scrawny Russian emigré turning thirty and knocking Paris flat, a musical coup de foudre standing in much the same relation to the twentieth century as Beethoven's Eroica did to the predecessor hundred—Stravinsky's preposterous denial of having plundered Russian folk melodies notwithstanding. None of the musico-historical abstractionizing would mean a fiddler' f-ck if the thing weren't a more or less inextinguishable source of pleasure and contemplation. WQXR's really planning a day of 24/7 Sacre? The Complete Bach Fest was a fantastic thing, but this sounds like a boardroom idea gone silly. Thing is, the Rite may well be that objay dar, like Hitchcock's North by Northwest, that can be experienced more or less in perpetüum without fatigue. That doesn't make it the greatest piece of music ever written—most of Bach or late Beethoven, anyone?—but it is no small distinction nonetheless. This is one spring that never ceases springing, and being born. What time should I tune in to hear the Markevich recording?

May. 18 2013 10:24 PM
KevinB from New York

The first time I heard it, (age four or so) I was so terrified, my dad had to take me out to the lobby until it was over!

May. 18 2013 04:56 PM
Constantine from New York

I also first heard this work when I saw Disney's Fantasia at the age of seven. I asked my relatives for records of all the works in the film and got everything except the Toccata and Fugue and Ave Maria, which I acquired much later myself, except for Ave Maria. To tell the truth, my asking for the Rite was due to a compulsion for completeness. I didn't care for it at first, though I warmed to it very quickly. Still, I was impatient for the slow section at the beginning of part two to end so the Tyrannosaurus could make his entrance. Now it's among my favorite parts. The recording I had was that of Ferenc Fricsay. His performance, which I recently reacquired, now seems to me a trifle on the tame side, though stylish. Of the many others I listened to over the years, Igor Markevitch's was one of my favorites. Listening to the work as an adult, I am amazed at how truly tuneful it is, how very Russian in flavor - and how short! I never noticed these things as a child.

May. 17 2013 06:46 PM
Myer Kaplan from Austin

Six months ago at the age of 48 was my first time hearing "The Rite of Spring." I was on the edge of my seat in the symphony hall wondering where the music was headed next. When it was over, it made perfect sense, but unexplainable. I called a dear friend who understood music to help me understand. What sounded and appeared like chaos and confusion was actually complete order and balance, much like nature around us. A few months later I heard it again with the Joffrey Ballet dancing the original choreography. It made even more sense to see and hear it, though still unexplainable, like most spiritual experiences.

May. 17 2013 06:08 PM
Kathy of Aragon from Castile

I was a very young teenager when I first heard The Rite of Spring, and I remember it paralyzed me with fear. I can't remember if I heard it in my music class at school, or if it was ballet-related, but it frightened me the same way Jimi Hendrix did when I first heard Purple Haze (the word "sacre" is awfully close to scare...). Thought ceased and I'm sure all my blood rushed to my extremities to either fight or flee. Of course now that I'm old and gray, I find it staggering --gorgeous and even transcendent sometimes. Now I know there are many many things of which to be afraid
more than music.

May. 17 2013 01:57 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

My first encounter with "The Rite of Spring" came courtesy of Leonard Bernstein's recording with the New York Philharmonic. I bought it as soon as it came out, so I was twelve at the time. If I had to pick one favorite performance, this would be it. It sounded like nothing else I've heard at that time. I've always liked the less barbaric sections the best, for example, "Spring Roundelays" and specifically at "tempo sostenuto", and especially the tempo at which it's taken here. Likewise in "The Game of Two Cities" at "tempo ritenuto pesante" the tempo also seems so right. Pierre Monteux's recording with the Paris Conservatory Orchestra doesn't have the abandon of Bernstein's, but it's inconceivable not wanting to own it, or at listening to it once. The unanswerable question for me is, is this the way Maitre Monteux conducting it at it's premiere?!

May. 17 2013 10:39 AM
Suzanne from New York

I first heard "The Rite of Spring" as part of the Walt Disney animated feature "Fantasia." I still associate the piece with all of the wonderful silent "narrative" of early life on Earth shown there. Though I know now that the piece was edited--even that some of the science regarding the dinosaurs themselves has been revised since that movie came out--it made an indelible impression on me.

May. 17 2013 10:22 AM
Stephen Malinowski

I heard The Rite a few times over the years, and was equally moved and baffled. I had the feeling "I'm not getting something here." Recently, I decided that the centennial year would be a good time to dig in, so I made an animated graphical score of it:

Part 1:
Part 2:

As a result, I've studied the score a lot (and heard the piece dozens, if not hundreds, of times), and I'm *still* baffled! I appreciate the piece a lot more now, and I'm often emotionally overwhelmed by it, but I still can't say that I can get my head around it. It's rare that a piece is this much bigger than me.

May. 15 2013 12:49 PM
Steve Pushor from Alexandria, Virginia

I was a rock and roller in college in the hippie days when I was introduced to the "Rite" via the Cleveland Orchestra and Pierre Boulez - from that point on I was a Pierre Boulez recording fan - the "Rite" kicked me into the world of modern music - the only regret is that 99% of the population is missing out on theses wonderful sounds on Q2 and are stuck on the horse and buggy days of Mozart - a period of music I have also,listened to and have exhausted.

May. 14 2013 11:19 AM

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