miércoles, mayo 22, 2013

The centenary of a sacred scandal: Stravinsky, composer of a wild spring

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In the beginning of 1913, Igor Stravinsky was having a good time. He was the most celebrated composer of Les Ballets Russes thanks to the success of his scores for L’oiseau de feu and Petrushka. But at the end of May of that same year, the world would discover his new work, Le sacre du printemps, and he would achieve greatness.

When Stravinsky introduced his new piece at the piano to a few of his friends and colleagues, many of them had a glimpse of its revolutionary essence. Marie Rambert, who helped Nijinsky with his choreography remembered: “When Stravinsky first came to one of our rehearsals, he stamped his feet on the floor and banged his fist on the piano and sang and shouted, all to give us an impression of the rhythms of the music and the color of the orchestra.” Pierre Monteux, conductor of Les Ballets Russes at that time, was arguably the first to acknowledge the work’s groundbreaking nature by saying: “This sounds like a scandal”.

The 20th century in music began with orchestras acting as epic entities for a couple of composers who preceded the frantic pace of innovation, rebellion and shock many composers would later establish: Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. These two passed the torch, in prominence, to Arnold Schoenberg, an ambitious Austrian determined to vanish tonality.

Within this particular context, Stravinsky’s breakthrough stands out from the rest by the essence of his virtue. While Schoenberg focused on scripting a new chapter in the history of music in terms of tonality, Stravinsky went a different way: he turned back to look at the past (he gathered tunes from Russian folklore and Slavic songs), focused on the richness of rhythm (the time signature is changed very often) and practically reconfigured the sound of the orchestra through an astonishing disposition of dissonances, an innovative approach to instrumentation (notes are played on some of the instruments at the extremes of their registers, unprecedented special effects are generated by the musicians) and a bewildering sense of orchestration.

Up until Le sacre du printemps, the orchestra never sounded like Stravinsky devised it to. Being the first and warmest French admirer of the piece, Maurice Ravel was perhaps the first musician who was able to be aware of the grandeur of it. The French composer predicted that “its première would prove an event as great as Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande”.

Its première was great indeed. But as I have already mentioned on previous posts, Nijinsky’s choreography seemed to have fired the spark of scandal. Stravinsky’s score, though, gained a life of his own. It has been widely performed ever since as an orchestral piece -challenging conductors, musicians and audiences alike. It has also proven out to be one of the most influential pieces ever written.

Composers like Boulez, Messiaen, Copland, Bartok and Piazzolla have recognized Stravinsky’s influence in their careers. Stravinsky’s inspiration could also be taken conceptually: his work shows the heights the orchestra can be taken to. His impact lies in his dazzling originality.

It has taken me many years to start to grasp the greatness of a piece like Le sacre du printemps. Every time I listen to it, whether on a record or at a live performance, I discover something new. This endless source of amazement could be a feature of every masterpiece. And it could also be an ingredient of an obsession like mine, one that I’d be glad to keep for the rest of my life.

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