The Rite of Spring
Saturday, May 18, 2019 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre
CARLOS CHAVEZ (1899-1978)
SINFONÍA INDIA (Symphony No.2)
Premiered: New York, 1936 (radio broadcast)
Carlos Chavez’s maternal grandfather was a Mexican Indian, who saw to it that his young grandson was fully aware of the Native side of his heritage – not least the music of Mexico’s indigenous people. As Chavez himself described it, this music “has been able to resist four centuries of contact with European musical expressions.” The Sinfonía India is, paradoxically, both a fierce celebration of Mexican indigenous music and an example of its interaction with the musical tradition that came in the wake of Cortes. Though pressed into a broad (fast-slow-fast) approximation of symphonic form, traditional melodies are presented in a style that seems to hybridize near-orgiastic fervor with the world of the composer’s close friend Aaron Copland.
Pride of place is given to a melody originating among the Huicholes people of Nayarit (the composer’s own ancestors), proclaimed by the oboes after the listener has been thoroughly unsettled by the introduction’s jarring 5-and 4-beat alternations. It’s a symphony, but we are emphatically not in Vienna any more. The original score called for a string of butterfly cocoons and suspended deer hooves, but the composer eventually relented and allowed maracas and wood blocks into the battery. A song of the Yaqui people of Sonora dominates what would once have been a slow movement, before the demented E flat clarinet (ghosted by a muted trumpet) shrieks a melody from Tiburón Island to initiate the final detonation of Aztec vigor.
Intriguingly, almost all of this fiercely Mexican music was composed in a New York apartment, where Chavez spent much of the 1930s; Copland was nearby, similarly inventing the music of the great open spaces that he had never actually seen. Unlike much of Copland’s “folk” material, however, Chavez’s is the real thing – the ethnomusicology of his own soul.
SILVESTRE REVUELTAS (1899 – 1940)
Premiered: Mexico City, 1938
At one alarming point in the 1935 movie ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! a firefight breaks out in a bar just as the pianist starts to play La Cucaracha. Seeing the bullets flying, the pianist holds up a card reading “Se suplica no tirarle al pianista” (“Please don’t shoot the pianist”) and wisely ducks behind the piano. The pianist is Silvestre Revueltas, who also scored the movie; he is 36 years old, and looks 65; his chronic alcoholism would carry him away only five years later. The Spanish Civil War, in which Revueltas fought on the Republican side, added the final ingredient of despair to a life already wrecked by chaos and drink. Once a close friend of Carlos Chavez, Revueltas lost his most important friend after a booze-fueled argument over a movie contract, and drifted aimlessly between crises until the furies caught up with him.
Sensemayá was inspired by a poem by the Cuban revolutionary Nicolas Batista describing the ritual killing of a snake. The grimmer parts of Mexico City concealed, among other things, Afro-Cuban cults - the reptilian franchise of Santeria - that actually performed this ritual, singing as they did so the Mayombe-bombe-mayombé chant that lies at the core of Sensemayá. It is impossible not to get the impression of a very exotic, impossibly dark Rite of Spring – Stravinsky’s tribal elders refocused through a shimmer of tropical heat and end-stage delirium tremens, both all too familiar to Revueltas. Sensemayá is his masterpiece, self-expressive and self-revelatory in equal measure. Many have heard the drop of the knife in the final climactic gesture, after all the tension and horror that have gone before; the metaphor and the irony were not lost on Revueltas’ family two years later.
IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
THE RITE OF SPRING
Premiered: Paris, France, 1913
Part One: The Earth’s Kiss
Part Two: The Exalted Sacrifice
There are many who wish that Stravinsky had stuck to the musical language of Petrushka, rather than pushing music off the stylistic cliff of the Rite. It is odd, then, to realize that much – most, in fact – of the music of the Rite was written before Petrushka, and parts of it were composed while The Firebird was being orchestrated. But now, the (largely) genial repetitive processes of Petrushka have become the obsessive monsters of the Rite. This elegant Parisian dandy, Rimsky-Korsakov’s favorite student, has removed his mask to uncover the primeval, intensely Russian composer that was never far from the surface.
Stravinsky’s own title for the work is Vesna svyashchennaya (Holy Spring), which he preferred to render, rather freely, as The Coronation of Spring. The scenario for the ballet was originally suggested by the painter Nicholas Roerich, and involved the unappealing concept of a young girl dancing herself to death as part of a primeval cultic ritual. Stravinsky decided that these were Russian pagans when he had a nightmare after one of Claude Debussy’s terrifying dinner parties; Debussy would eventually play the lower end of the piano when he and Stravinsky played through the Rite as a piano duet for Diaghilev.
The musical landscape of the Rite is, above all, Russian. The famous, barely-playable bassoon solo that opens the work uses a folk song that Stravinsky found in Melodje ludowe litewskie, a book lent to him by Rimsky-Korsakov and never returned. Other melodies in the Rite are clearly identifiable from Rimsky’s own folksong collections. It is, however, a million miles from the average Percy Grainger folksong arrangement.
It is sometimes hard to believe, but this music is now over a hundred years old – part of history. We can now hear the Rite as part of the same process of the universalization of folk art that gave us jazz; the same reconciliation with the primitive that gave us Picasso and Henry Moore.
So, what is it all “about”? Famously, Stravinsky himself once said that music was incapable, in its very essence, of being “about” anything at all; he was very clear indeed that the Rite was certainly not about Walt Disney’s dinosaurs, and never forgave Leopold Stokowski for slashing the score to ribbons for Fantasia. It may be more helpful to think of Stravinsky’s early ballets as a series of nested Russian dolls – except that the last, innermost doll has been replaced with a bear.
About the Concert
Stravinsky's colorful ballet is one of the most influential pieces of all time, and hearing it live is an experience like no other! Chavez's tuneful "Sinfonia india" is inspired by the melodies of Native American tribes in Northern Mexico, while Revueltas' Sensemayá mines the rhythms of Mexican dance. Villa Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras will feature our cello section and soprano Kelli Young. Plus, the winners of our Young Artist Competition will amaze you with their virtuosic performances!
This concert is sponsored by Bruce and Cathy Kuehne in honor of Jason Love's 20th anniversary and in appreciation for his programming.
We are proud to be a part of Howard County Tourism's Art for All.