The Rite of Spring, the final and climactic offering of the New York Philharmonic’s recently concluded Russian Stravinsky festival, attracted listeners several generations younger than the average Philharmonic subscriber. Well-dressed high school and college students spilled out of Avery Fisher Hall in small groups bubbling with excitement, and soon enough they were busy texting their enthusiasms. As it has done ever since its premiere in 1913, The Rite of Spring (or Le sacre du printemps) viscerally affirmed the adolescent body and soul like no other piece of classical music, and certainly no other work of Igor Stravinsky’s. The Rite’s uniqueness, even when compared with impressive imitators like Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin or Varèse’s Arcana, baffled its own creator. It was “impossible, after the lapse of twenty years, to recall what were the feelings which animated me in composing it,” Stravinsky admitted in his autobiography. Still later in life, he summed up his inexplicable relation to his defining masterpiece with the declaration, “I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed.” Had Stravinsky meant to write a different piece, one that hewed to the grim story of the original ballet, in which society sacrifices a young virgin to preserve ancient laws? No matter. The Rite’s music summons youthful energy overthrowing an old order. Roll over Beethoven.
The Rite’s special power still challenges attempts to explain the wayward development of Stravinsky’s music, and twentieth-century classical music in general. Like its nineteenth-century equivalent, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, The Rite sprang improbably from a young composer; by the time his studies ended in 1908, just five years before The Rite’s premiere, Stravinsky had written nothing remarkable. It was natural, therefore, to think of the work as a beginning, a harbinger—but of what? Stravinsky’s later music seemed written to evade the question. His pieces from the 1920s, like the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, sound either like a deliberate repudiation of The Rite or the work of an altogether different composer.
Emblazoned by the brasslike male voices of the Mariinsky Theatre Chorus and the blustering dramatic tenor of Anthony Dean Griffey, Oedipus Rex was the minor high point of the Stravinsky festival. Yet for all the dramatic force of its performance, conducted by the festival’s impresario, Valery Gergiev, the opera spoke to a different part of the nervous system: it demanded critical attentiveness rather than utter submission. The festival further compounded the question of The Rite’s place in Stravinsky’s oeuvre by offering several all-Stravinsky programs in which the works were arranged in reverse chronology. Oedipus (1927) followed Orpheus (1947); Petrushka (1911) followed the Capriccio (1929), which followed the Symphony in C (1940). The final program began with the Symphony in Three Movements (1945), followed by the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1924)—and then The Rite. In every case the later works paled beside their precursors. Even more spectral were the compositions of Stravinsky’s later years, many of them written in a twelve-tone idiom, none of which Maestro Gergiev deemed worthy of inclusion. A newly released CD on Gergiev’s own Mariinsky label with the Mariinsky orchestra, chorus and soloists mirrors his selective affinities for Stravinsky. It pairs an Oedipus Rex that holds its own against competing versions with a peerless, spectacularly idiomatic performance of Les Noces, Stravinsky’s Russian masterpiece, which for too many years was performed either in French or by non-Russian choruses struggling to sound Slavic.
The festival promised to answer the conundrum of Stravinsky’s wayward development by exploring his national roots. Born near St. Petersburg in 1882, Stravinsky was raised and educated in a self-consciously nationalistic culture that gained a musical form in compositions such as Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Borodin’s Prince Igor. Early in life he imbibed Russian language and literature, the sound of Russian folk music and Russian Orthodox liturgical chant. He became steeped in the repertory of Russian opera and ballet thanks to his father, who sang at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Opera, and his musical knowledge deepened during six years of private study with the renowned composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Yet because of the wars and forced migrations that scarred the twentieth century, few of the musicians who performed Stravinsky’s music during his lifetime, including conductors like Pierre Monteux and Ernest Ansermet, shared his Russian background; until recently many of his Russian-language works, such as Les Noces and Mavra, were routinely performed in French. Stravinsky, moreover, was persona non grata in the Soviet Union until 1962, when he visited the country; party ideologues branded him a “formalist,” especially for his neoclassical works of the 1920s. It was a relationship of mutual rejection that Stravinsky escalated with the anti-Soviet polemics of his 1939 Harvard lectures (published as Poetics of Music). Stravinsky’s estrangement from his homeland enforced the notion of classifying his output into Russian and non-Russian periods, a flimsy division that conceals the fact that a number of the works Stravinsky composed after leaving Russia for good in 1914 (Renard, Les Noces, Mavra, The Fairy’s Kiss, Scherzo à la Russe, Sonata for Two Pianos) explicitly draw on Russian material, and Russian-sounding moments occur in many later works.