The Rite of Spring: Wikis


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The Rite of Spring, commonly referred to by its original French title, Le sacre du printemps (Russian: Весна священная, Vesna svyashchennaya) is a ballet with music by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, original choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, and original set design and costumes by archaeologist and painter Nicholas Roerich, all under impresario Serge Diaghilev. The music's innovative complex rhythmic structures, timbres, and use of dissonance have made it a seminal 20th century composition.

Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein said of one passage, "That page is sixty years old, but it's never been topped for sophisticated handling of primitive rhythms...", and of the work as a whole, "'s also got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms and whatever else you care to name."[1]

A performance of the work lasts about 33 minutes.



While the Russian title literally means "Sacred Spring", the English title is based on the French title under which the work was premiered, although sacre is more precisely translated as "consecration". It has the subtitle "Pictures from Pagan Russia" (French: Tableaux de la Russie païenne).


The Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps)
Choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky
Composed by Igor Stravinsky
Date of premiere 29 May 1913
Place of premiere Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris
Original ballet company Ballets Russes
Set designed by Nicholas Roerich
Setting Russia
Genre Russian Modernism

The painter Nicholas Roerich shared his idea with Stravinsky in 1910, his fleeting vision of a pagan ritual in which a young girl dances herself to death. Stravinsky's earliest conception of The Rite of Spring was in the spring of 1910. Stravinsky writes, "... there arose a picture of a sacred pagan ritual: the wise elders are seated in a circle and are observing the dance before death of the girl whom they are offering as a sacrifice to the god of Spring in order to gain his benevolence. This became the subject of The Rite of Spring."[2]

While composing The Firebird,[3] Stravinsky began forming sketches and ideas for the piece, enlisting the help of Roerich. Though he was sidetracked for a year while he worked on Petrushka (which he intended to be a light burlesque as a relief from the orchestrally intense work already in progress), The Rite of Spring was composed between 1912 and 1913 for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Roerich was an integral part of the creation of the work, drawing from scenes of historical rites for inspiration; Stravinsky referred to the work-in-progress as "our child".


After undergoing revisions almost up until the very day of its first performance, it was premiered on May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris and was conducted by Pierre Monteux under the Ballets Russes.

The premiere involved one of the most famous classical music riots in history. The intensely rhythmic score and primitive scenario shocked audiences more accustomed to the demure conventions of classical ballet. Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography was a radical departure from classical ballet. Stravinsky would later write in his autobiography of the process of working with Nijinsky on the choreography, stating that "the poor boy knew nothing of music" and that Nijinsky "had been saddled with a task beyond his capacity."[4] While Stravinsky praised Nijinsky's amazing dance talent, he was frustrated working with him on choreography.

This frustration was reciprocated by Nijinsky with regard to Stravinsky's patronizing attitude: " much time is wasted as Stravinsky thinks he is the only one who knows anything about music. In working with me he explains the value of the black notes, the white notes, of quavers and semiquavers, as though I had never studied music at all... I wish he would talk more about his music for Sacre, and not give a lecture on the beginning theory of music."[5]

The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start with the opening bassoon solo, the audience began to boo loudly due to the slight discord in the background notes behind the bassoon's opening melody. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance.[6] Fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the première allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet's opening bars (though Stravinsky later said "I do not know who invented the story that he was present at, but soon walked out of, the premiere."[7]) .

Stravinsky ran backstage, where Diaghilev was turning the lights on and off in an attempt to try to calm the audience. Nijinsky stood on a chair, leaned out (far enough that Stravinsky had to grab his coat-tail), and shouted counts to the dancers, who were unable to hear the orchestra (this was challenging because Russian numbers are polysyllabic above ten, such as seventeen: semnadsat vs. eighteen: vosemnadsat).[8]

Although Nijinsky and Stravinsky were despondent, Diaghilev (a Russian art critic as well as the ballet's impresario) commented that the scandal was "just what I wanted".[citation needed]

Some scholars have questioned the traditional account, particularly concerning the extent to which the riot was caused by the music, rather than by the choreography and/or the social and political circumstances. Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin has written an article about the premiere, entitled "A Myth of the Twentieth Century," in which he attempts to demonstrate that the traditional story of the music provoking unrest was largely concocted by Stravinsky himself in the 1920s after he had published the score. At that later date, Stravinsky was constructing an image of himself as an innovative composer to promote his music, and he revised his accounts of the composition and performances of The Rite of Spring to place a greater emphasis on a break with musical traditions and to encourage a focus on the music itself in concert performances. Once the music became popular, later writers appropriated Stravinsky's version of events. Taruskin summarizes how unimportant the music apparently was to most of the audience at the premiere:

In 1913 [the music] was not the primary object of attention. The most cursory perusal of the Paris reviews of the original production, conveniently collected in Truman C. Bullard's dissertation, reveals that it was the now-forgotten Nijinsky choreography, far more than Stravinsky's music, that fomented the famous "riot" at the premiere. Many if not most reviews fail to deal with Stravinsky's contribution at all beyond naming him as composer. And, as most memoirs of the premiere . . . agree, a lot of the music went unheard, which did not dissuade the protesters in the least.[9]

On the other hand, American science writer Jonah Lehrer discusses the possibility that when certain neurons responsible for perception patterns in sounds fail to find one, they may cause an excessive production of dopamine, which may result in a mental state close to schizophrenia and hence contribute to the rioting tendency.[10]

The ballet completed its run of seven performances amid controversy, but experienced no further disruption. The same performers gave a production of the work in London later the same year. And when the following year saw the first concert (i.e. non-staged) performance of the work given in Paris, Stravinsky was afterwards carried through the streets on the shoulders of a cheering crowd[11]. The United States premiere was in 1924 in a concert version.




The Rite is divided into two parts with the following scenes (there are many different English translations of the original titles; the ones given are Stravinsky's preferred wording[12] followed by the original French in parenthesis):

Nicholas Roerich's 1913 set design for Part I: Adoration of the Earth.

First Part: A Kiss of the Earth (Première Partie: L'adoration de la Terre)

  • Introduction[13]
  • The Augurs of Spring [: Dances of the Young Girls] (Les Augures Printaniers: Danses des Adolescentes)[14]
  • Ritual of Abduction (Jeu du Rapt)[15]
  • Spring Rounds (Rondes Printanières)[16]
  • Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes (Jeux des Cités Rivales)[17]
  • Procession of the Oldest and Wisest One [the Sage] (Cortège du Sage)[18]
  • The Kiss of the Earth (The Oldest and Wisest One) [(The Sage)] (Adoration de la Terre (Le Sage))[19]
  • The Dancing Out of the Earth, OR The Dance Overcoming the Earth (Danse de la Terre)[20]

Second Part: The Exalted Sacrifice (Seconde Partie: Le Sacrifice)

  • Introduction[21]
  • Mystic Circle of the Young Girls (Cercles Mystérieux des Adolescentes)[22]
  • The Naming and Honoring of the Chosen One (Glorification de l'Élue)[23]
  • Evocation of the Ancestors OR Ancestral Spirits (Evocation des Ancêtres)[24]
  • Ritual Action of the Ancestors (Action Rituelle des Ancêtres)[25]
  • Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One) (Danse Sacrale (L'Élue))[26]

Though the melodies draw upon folk-like themes designed to evoke the feeling of songs passed down from ancient time, the only tune Stravinsky acknowledged to be directly drawn from previously existing folk melody is the opening, first heard played by the solo bassoon. Several other themes, however, have been shown to have a striking similarity to folk tunes appearing in the Juskiewicz anthology of Lithuanian folk songs.[citation needed]

Musical characteristics

Stravinsky's music is harmonically adventurous, with prominent use of dissonance for the purposes of color and musical energy. Rhythmically, it is similarly adventurous, a number of sections having constantly changing time signatures and off-beat accents. Stravinsky used asymmetrical rhythms, percussive dissonance, polyrhythms, polytonality, layering of ostinati (persistently repeated ideas) and melodic fragments to create complex webs of interactive lines, and is influenced by primitivism (specifically, West African tribal art[citation needed]). An example of primitivism can be seen below (from the opening of the final section, the "Sacrificial Dance"):

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, "Sacrificial Dance" About this sound Play

According to George Perle (1977 quoted in 1990), the "intersecting of inherently non-symmetrical diatonic elements with inherently non-diatonic symmetrical elements seems... the defining principle of the musical language of Le Sacre and the source of the unparalleled tension and conflicted energy of the work". This idea is elaborated more fully by Van Den Toorn, who gives a detailed analysis of the pitch structure of the piece in terms of diatonically derived tetrachords intersecting with symmetrical 'partitions' of the octatonic scale.[27]

Like the symmetrical partitioning of the twelve-tone scale in Le Sacre, the work's diatonicism may be explained in terms of interval cycles more simply and coherently than in terms of traditional modes or major and minor scales. With the single exception of interval[-class] 5, every interval[-class] from 1 through 6 partitions an octave into equal segments. A seven-note segment of the interval-5 cycle [C5], telescoped into the compass of an octave, divides the octave into unequal intervals: 'whole-steps' and 'half-steps'".

Example: The last few bassoon solo measures from the main theme from the Introduction, preceded by the head motif, transcribed to treble clef.

The boundary of what Perle considers the principal theme from the Introduction, following the solo bassoon head motif in measures 1-3, is a symmetrical tritone divided by minor thirds, making an interval-3 cycle (C 3) (p. 19). Like Edgard Varèse's Density 21.5, "it partitioned the interval of a tritone into two minor thirds and differentiated these by twice filling in the span of the upper third--first chromatically and then with a single passing note--and leaving the lower third open". The theme repeats "truncated" in 7-9, the head motif only in 13, and then fully, transposed down a half step, fifty three measures later, 66, at the end of the movement with "(c-flat)-(b-flat)-(a-flat) instead of the head motif's c-b-a" (p. 81-82).

Like Density 21.5, it "implies the complete representation of each partition of the C3 interval cycle." C30 begins in the head motif's c-b-a and is completed by the main theme which immediately follows (see example above). However, "the otherwise atonal C 3 cycle is initiated by a minor third that is plainly diatonic and tonal" (p. 83). Thus The Rite of Spring has something in common with No. 33 of Béla Bartók's 44 Violin Duets, "Song of the Harvest", which, "juxtaposes tonal and atonal interpretations of the same perfect-4th tetrachord" (p. 86).

The enduring celebrity of The Rite of Spring is partly due to its constant discussion and analysis by musicologists and music theorists. Allen Forte[28], Pierre Boulez[29] and Van den Toorn have given analyses of the work's structure in terms of abstract relations of rhythm and pitch, arguing for a modernist understanding of its musical language. On the other hand, Richard Taruskin's monumental study of Stravinsky's early music gives an explanation of the musical characteristics as fundamentally and directly derived from Russian folk music.[30] American composer and musicologist, Peter Schickele, said in a radio broadcast in the 1990s that the The Rite of Spring had such a profound effect on composition that virtually all subsequent 20th century music could be said to be “The Rewrite of Spring”.[citation needed]


The Rite of Spring is scored for an unusually large orchestra consisting of the following:

Stravinsky scored the instruments of the orchestra in unusual and uncomfortable sounding registers (ranges) in the Rite of Spring, often emulating the strained sounds of untrained village voices.[31] An instance of this is heard in the very opening bassoon solo which reaches to the highest notes of the instrument's range. The composer also called for instruments that, before the Rite of Spring, had rarely been scored for in orchestral music, including the alto flute, piccolo trumpet, bass trumpet, Wagner tuba, and güiro.[citation needed] The use of these instruments, combined with the aforementioned manipulation of instrumental ranges, gave the piece a distinctive sound.

In his 1951–52 Charles Eliot Norton lectures, Aaron Copland characterized the Rite of Spring as the foremost orchestral achievement of the 20th century.[32]

Arrangements for piano

Stravinsky composed a piano four-hands version before finishing the orchestral score. The composer was continually revising the work for both musical and practical reasons, even after the premiere and well into ensuing years. The transcription for piano four-hands was performed with Debussy; since Stravinsky composed the Rite, as with his other works, at the piano, it is natural that he worked on the piano version of the work concurrently with the full orchestral score. It was in this form that the piece was first published (in 1913, the full score not being published until 1921 by Editions Russe de Musique). Owing to the disruption caused by World War I, there were few performances of the work in the years following its composition, which made this arrangement the predominant version by which the piece gained public exposure. This version is still performed quite frequently, as it does not require the massive forces of the full orchestral version.

Stravinsky also made two arrangements of the The Rite of Spring for player piano. In late 1915, the Aeolian Company in London asked for permission to issue both the Rite and Petrushka on piano roll, and by early 1918 the composer had made several sketches to be used in the more complex passages. Again owing to the war, the work of transcribing the rolls dragged on, and only the Rite was ever issued by Aeolian on standard pianola rolls, and this not until late 1921, by which time Stravinsky had completed a far more comprehensive re-composition of the work for the Pleyela, the brand of player piano manufactured by Pleyel in Paris.

The Pleyela/pianola master rolls were not recorded using a "recording piano" played by a performer in real time, but were instead true "pianola" rolls, cut mechanically/graphically, free from any constraints imposed by the ability of the player. Musicologist William Malloch observed that on these rolls the final section is at a considerably faster tempo, relative to the rest of the composition, than in the generally used orchestral score. Malloch opines—based upon this evidence, the composer's revisions of the orchestral score, and a limited number of very early phonographic recordings of performances—that Stravinsky originally intended the faster tempo, but found that significant numbers of orchestral players at the time were simply unable to manage the rhythmic complexity of the section at that tempo, and accordingly revised the tempo markings.[citation needed] The Zander recording includes both the pianola version, and the orchestral Rite with the faster tempo restored to the final section. A low-fidelity recording is available here.


Reconstruction of ballet

Although Nijinsky's choreography was poorly preserved, this choreography and Roerich's costuming and set design were reconstructed in 1987 by dance historian Millicent Hodson, art historian Kenneth Archer, and choreographer Robert Joffrey, for performance by the Joffrey Ballet.[33] The piece premiered in Los Angeles, and in 1990, Joffrey's reconstruction was televised as part of the Dance in America/Great Performances series on PBS.[34]

Influence on dance

The music is used as a standard of dance troupes around the world, including for choreography by Pina Bausch and Sir Kenneth MacMillan. Different from the long and graceful lines of traditional ballet, arms and legs were sharply bent in Nijinsky's choreography. The dancers danced more from their pelvis than their feet, a style that later influenced Martha Graham. The "anti-ballet" aspects of the Nijinsky choreography (body components curled inward not opened outward, body pulled down not lifted up, steps heavy not light, focus on grotesqueness not elegance) as well as the controversial, violent, pagan, or primitivist thematic material, greatly influenced Hijikata and Tamano method Butoh.

Disney's Fantasia

The Rite of Spring was further popularized through Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940), an animated feature film in which original animated images and stories were combined with works of classical music. The Rite of Spring is the fourth piece in the film's program, illustrated by "a pageant, as the story of the growth of life on Earth" according to the narration read by Deems Taylor. The sequence depicts the evolution of life on earth, from the beginning of simple life forms up to the dinosaurs and their eventual destruction. The original score of Stravinsky's work was edited for its use in Fantasia. Part I was considerably shortened and the opening bassoon solo was repeated at the end.

Stravinsky's own 1961 recording of the work for Columbia Records included liner notes by him, transcribed from an interview for which the audio still exists. Therein, he stated that he received $1,200 (his share of a total $5,000) for the use of his music in the film, explaining that since his music was not copyrighted for use in the USA it could be used regardless of whether he granted permission or not, but that Disney wished to show the film in other countries. In order for the music to follow the animated story concerned, much of Part I either was omitted entirely or was moved to, or repeated at, the end. Stravinsky described the performance as "execrable" and thought the segment as a whole "involved a dangerous misunderstanding".[citation needed]

The Disney studios maintain they were completely surprised by his turn of opinion in later years. Stravinsky claimed he signed over the rights for The Firebird to the Disney studios only after Walt Disney personally threatened him and told him he was going to film The Firebird whether he liked it or not, so he might as well sign over the rights and be paid for it. The Disney family maintains that Stravinsky was being disingenuous.[citation needed] Disney's nephew Roy E. Disney later used The Firebird in the production of Fantasia 2000.


Stravinsky's 1940 recording is considered by many musicologists to be the definitive recording, but the sound quality (even on the remastered CD) is poor. Stravinsky reportedly greeted Leonard Bernstein's 1958 recording with the one-word reaction, "Wow!"[35] Stravinsky's 1960 recording has been described as "demonic" in temperament. In a detailed review of Herbert von Karajan's first 1964 rendition, Stravinsky derided it as "too polished", "a pet savage rather than a real one", and described Action rituelle des ancêtres as "tempo di hoochie-coochie" and "duller than Disney's dying dinosaurs". He concluded: "I doubt whether The Rite can be satisfactorily performed in terms of Herr von Karajan's traditions".[36]

See also


  1. ^ The Unanswered Question – Six Talks at Harvard, Leonard Bernstein, Harvard University Press, 1976, p 357
  2. ^ Yarustovsky, Boris Mikhailovich. Foreword. The Rite of Spring In Full Score. By Igor Stravinsky. USA: Dover Publications, 1989. p. vii.
  3. ^ Stravinsky 1998, 31 and 40-41.
  4. ^ Stravinsky 1998, 40–41.
  5. ^ Hill 2000, 110.
  6. ^ Radio Lab, Show 202: "Musical Language", New York: WNYC (21 April 2006). Host/Producer: Jad Abumrad, Co-Host: Robert Krulwich, Producer: Ellen Horne, Production Executives: Dean Capello and Mikel Ellcessor.
  7. ^ Stravinsky and Craft 1962, 144.
  8. ^ Modris Eksteins challenges this interpretation, claiming that this was because of the difficult choreography and the unconventional rhythm of the music, adding that he was simply continuing what he had always done in practice. Eksteins adds that the story was later embellished by Stravinsky himself and Jean Cocteau to enhance the mystique of this legendary performance. (Eksteins 1989, 12).
  9. ^ Richard Taruskin, "A Myth of the Twentieth Century: The Rite of Spring, the Tradition of the New, and 'The Music Itself,'" Modernism/Modernity 2.1 (1995): 16.
  10. ^ As summarized in: "The Neural Imagination: Aesthetic and Neuroscientific Approaches to the Arts", by Irving Massey, 2009, ISBN 0292752792, p. 102
  11. ^
  12. ^ Stravinsky, I. (2000). The Rite of Spring, p. v (Dover Miniature Scores). Dover Publications, Inc. ISBN 0486411745
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ Van den Toorn 1987[citation needed]
  28. ^ Forte 1978.
  29. ^ Boulez 1966,[citation needed]
  30. ^ Taruskin 1996,[citation needed]
  31. ^ Michael Tilson Thomas. (9 November 2006). Keeping Score. [Documentary]. San Francisco, California: KQED. 
  32. ^ Copland 1952, 37.
  33. ^ Anderson, Jack, (25 October 1987), The Joffrey Ballet Restores Nijinsky's 'Rite of Spring', New York Times, accessed 27 September 2008
  34. ^ Kisslegoff, Anna, (7 January 1990),DANCE VIEW; Why Those Bearskins in 'Le Sacre du Printemps'?, New York Times
  35. ^ Henahan 1984.
  36. ^ From the History of the Mariinsky Theatre: Stravinsky: A Review of Recent Recordings of Le sacre du printemps, 1964] Mariinsky Theatre website, accessed via Internet Wayback Machine Archive on 8 August 2008. The original review appeared in Hi Fi-Stereo Magazine, 1964[citation needed].


  • Copland, Aaron. 1952. Music and Imagination. The Charles Elliot Norton Lectures, 1951–52. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Eksteins, Modris. 1989. Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0-395-93758-2.
  • Forte, Allen. 1978. The Harmonic Organization of the Rite of Spring. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-02201-8
  • Henahan, Donal. 1984. "Phiharmonic: Incarnations of Spring". New York Times (March 23).
  • Hill, Peter. 2000. Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-62221-2.
  • Hodson, Millicent. 1996. Nijinsky's Crime Against Grace: Reconstruction of the Original Choreography for Le sacre du printemps. Pendragon Press. ISBN 0-945193-43-2
  • Perle, George. 1977. "Berg's Master Array of Interval Cycles". Musical Quarterly 63:1–30. Reprinted in Perle, The Right Notes: Twenty-Three Selected Essays by George Perle on Twentieth-Century Music, 207–35. Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1995.
  • Perle, George. 1990. The Listening Composer. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-06991-9.
  • Scheurer, Timothy E. 1997. "John Williams and Film Music Since 1971—Composer". Popular Music and Society (Spring):[citation needed]
  • Stravinsky, Igor. 1998. An Autobiography. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-31856-2 (Originally published: New York:Simon & Schuster, 1936; first published as a Norton paperback 1962.)
  • Stravinsky, Igor, and Robert Craft. 1962. Expositions and Developments. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-04403-7
  • Taruskin, Richard. 1996. Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works through Mavra. 2 vols. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-07099-2.
  • Van den Toorn, Pieter C. 1987. Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring: The Beginnings of a Musical Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-315331-9; Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-05958-1 full text
  • Yarustovsky, Boris Mikhailovich. 1965. Foreword to an edition of the orchestral score. Moscow: Izd. "Muzyka". English translation, New York: Dover Publications, 1989; ISBN 0-486-25857-2.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

It has been suggested that this article or section be merged into Igor Stravinsky. (Discuss)

Quotes regarding The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky

  • "The music of Le Sacre du Printemps baffles verbal description. To say that much of it is hideous as sound is a mild description. There is certainly an impelling rhythm traceable. Practically it has no relation to music at all as most of us understand the word."
    • Musical Times, London, August 1, 1913, quoted in: Slonimsky, Nicolas (1953). Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0295785799.
  • "This intersecting of inherently non-symmetrical diatonic elements with inherently non-diatonic symmetrical elements seems to me the defining principle of the musical language of Le Sacre and the source of the unparalleled tension and conflicted energy of the work."
    • George Perle (1990). The Listening Composer, p. 83. California: University of California Press. ISBN 0520069919.
  • "The diatonicism of Le Sacre du printemps should not be understood in the restrictive sense of the major/minor system, but in terms of something more basic. Like the symmetrical partitionings of the twelve-tone scale in Le Sacre, its diatonicism may also be explained in terms of interval cycles--more simply and coherently, in fact, than in terms of the traditional modes and scales. With the single exception of interval[-class] 5, every interval[-class] from 1 through 6 will partition the space of an octave into equal segments. A seven-note segment of the interval-5 cycle [C5], telescoped into the compass of an octave, divides the octave into unequal intervals--'whole-steps' and 'half-steps.'"
    • George Perle (1990). The Listening Composer, p. 84. California: University of California Press. ISBN 0520069919.
      • George Perle (). "Berg's Master Array of the Interval Cycles", p. 10.

Simple English

File:Costume pour le Sacre du printemps (Les Ballet russes, Opéra).jpg
Costume used in a 1991 version of the ballet in Paris, based on Nicolas Roerich's design.

The Rite of Spring, is a piece of music and a ballet. The music was composed by Igor Stravinsky, for a ballet of the same name. The ballet was performed by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, with choreography by Nijinsky. The set design and costumes were by the archaeologist and painter Nicholas Roerich. The première was in Paris in 1913.

The ballet and its music is often called by its French title Le Sacre du Printemps. It is one of the most famous pieces of music of the 20th century and it had a big influence on many composers. The music sounded very modern when it was first performed in 1913. The music has very complicated rhythms and strange chords (dissonances) that people were not used to at the time. They were more used to Romantic ballet music such as that by Tchaikovsky.

The effect was sensational. People started to fight in the theatre because some hated the music, while others thought it brilliant. This made everybody want to hear it and so it became well-known, and people got used to the new sounds.


The music

The music lasts about 40 minutes, and is divided into two parts. It has the subtitle "Pictures from Pagan Russia". Stravinsky had the idea of composing music which was about country people from old times in Russia who danced a fertility rite. This means: a ceremony which is supposed to bring good luck to the next year’s harvest. In this ancient Russian dance, one young girl is chosen to dance and dance until she dies. She is the sacrifice. She is sacrificed to the god of spring.

How Stravinsky wrote the score

The painter Nicholas Roerich talked with Stravinsky about the idea for this ballet in 1910. Stravinsky started writing down musical ideas while he was still working on his ballet The Firebird. Then he worked on Petrushka. In 1912 he was able to concentrate on The Rite of Spring. All these ballets were composed for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. They were a very famous group of Russian dancers who worked in Europe, mostly in Paris.

The first performance

The Rite of Spring was first performed by the Ballets Russes on 29 May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The conductor was Pierre Monteux. The audience were shocked at the primitive kind of dancing and the irregular rhythms and strange orchestral sounds and unusual chords. Nijinsky’s choreography was so different from classical ballet. Nijinsky found it difficult to work with Stravinsky and difficult to work with the music.

The complicated music and violent dance steps made the people start to boo. They started to shout and whistle. They argued, and other people who liked it argued back. Then some people started to fight. In the end the police were called. Stravinksy was very upset and ran out of the theatre. The performance was a scandal, but this actually made people curious and soon the ballet became very famous. It was performed seven times that season, and there were no more interruptions during the other performances.

The music was first heard in the United States in 1924. It was a concert performance, in other words: it was played by an orchestra at a concert, but without any dancing. This is how it is usually heard today.

Stravinsky composed a version for two people to play at one piano (piano duet). He finished this before he finished the orchestral work. This seemed quite natural, because he sat at the piano while he composed the music. He continued to make changes to the orchestral score even after the first performance.


The Rite of Spring is divided into two parts, and each part has several sections:

  • Part 1: The Adoration of the Earth
In the Introduction we hear the coming of spring. A bassoon starts all by itself on a very high note. Gradually other instruments join in until it sounds like the swarming of insects and other spring noises.
In The Auguries of Spring – Dances of the Young Girls we hear two chords played together, each chord is in a different key. This chord which is in two keys at once is stamped out by the strings and eight horns. A rocking tune is heard on the cor anglais.
This leads to The Game of Capture in which we hear a piccolo trumpet (a small kind of trumpet).
Round-dances of Spring is a country tune on high and low clarinets followed by a slow dance for strings and woodwind. Then there is a big noise, and then quiet once more.
Games of the Rival Tribes uses timpani, low brass instruments and horns to describe the furious tribes.
The Procession of the Sage is the entry of the wise man (the sage). It builds into a big climax.
Adoration of the Earth-The Sage is a short bit of very quiet music, leading to
Dance of the Earth which leads Part One to a wild end.
  • Part 2: The Sacrifice
The Introduction describes the night. Lots of chords in several keys at once leads to a tune in the strings.
Mysterious Circles of the Young Girls. This is where one girl is chosen to die. Six solo violas play the tune, an alto flute is heard. Trumpets and horns with mutes interrupt the circling. Then eleven heavy thumps on the strings and drums lead to…
Glorification of the Chosen One. This is a big, exciting dance with noisy horns and timpani and bass drum.
Evocation of the Ancestors. The elders (the wise old men) arrive to majestic chords on wind and brass
Ritual Action of the Ancestors. We hear quiet, ticking chords and a duet for cor anglais and alto flute. Then trumpets and horns, and finally clarinets.
Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One. The “Chosen One” dances herself to death. The music is very energetic, with very irregular rhythms and time signatures which keep changing almost every bar. The work ends in a huge climax.

Musical characteristics

Stravinsky's music has many complex harmonies with dissonant sounds. There are passages with polyrhythms (several rhythms at once) as well as polytonality (music in several keys at once). The time signatures keep changing, and he often uses ostinati (repeated patterns).

Stravinsky wanted his music to describe the releasing of lots of energy. Most composers would have done this by using a lot of percussion instruments. However, although two players are needed for the timpani, there are not many other percussion instruments. Instead, the whole orchestra becomes a kind of percussion instrument. Also, the music often sounds like Russian folkmusic.


The Rite of Spring uses a very large orchestra with some unusual instruments. Here is a list of the instruments used:

The dance

Nijinsky's choreography was thought almost as shocking as the music. The idea is: a tribe sacrifices a young virgin each year in the Spring to please their gods, and make sure crops grow well. The dancers adopt a pigeon-toed stance (position); their moves are heavy. They move together in groups; their movements are like a ritual. They look like a primitive tribe performing a ritual. The ritual moves towards the sacrifice of the girl. The Rite of Spring is a link between classical ballet and Modern dance.[1]p395

Reconstruction of Ballet

Nijinsky's choreography has not been kept very well, but there have been efforts in recent years to reconstruct his performance, using costumes and set designs that look like the original ones from 1913.


The Rite of Spring was made even more popular when Walt Disney used some of the music in his film Fantasia in 1940. It is used in the film to describe early life on planet earth with dinosaurs roaming about.


  1. Crane, Debra & Mackrell, Judith 2000. The Oxford Dictionary of Dance. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Igor Stravinsky "The Rite of Spring" - Malcolm Hayes 2003, printed in programme for BBC Promenade Concert 16 August 2004


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