Jonathan Carney & The Rite of Spring

Saturday, October 17, 2009 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre


Ludwig van Beethoven - Overture to Egmont
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto
Igor Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring
Program Notes



Composed: 1912-13
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.

Ludwig van Beethoven - Overture to Egmont

About the Concert

Over 100 musicians take the stage as the orchestra brings you three of the most inspired pieces of music ever conceived! Beethoven was considered mad by his contemporaries…Tchaikovsky’s Concerto was deemed unplayable…The French police couldn’t stop the riot at Stravinsky’s premiere…But today these incredible works stand among the greatest of the Classical, Romantic, and Twentieth-Century masterpieces.

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