Understanding the music
It is tempting to extend the ballet’s central metaphor of renewal to the musical language itself. Stravinsky turned on its head the classical relationship between harmony and rhythm in this work. In all classical music before the twentieth century, melody and harmony are the focal point, while rhythm maintains a background of regular periodicity (meter). In The Rite, rhythm is the shaping element (specifically rhythmic asymmetries), while harmony and melody take a backseat (and are occasionally even static). Also gone is the development of melodic ideas (think of the development section of a sonata form or the transformation of the idée fixe in Symphony fantastique). In The Rite, Stravinsky simply juxtaposes and superimposes sharply differentiated and strongly characterized materials. Repetition is a huge factor: often times ideas are just repeated over and over and then we move on to something different. (Think of it like putting dissimilar Lego blocks together or joining very different cars to form a train.) Audiences took note in 1913 because there really had been nothing like this before. And Stravinsky knew he was being provocative.
With all of that in mind, use the following notes/questions to guide your listening:
Melody. Listen for the fragmentary nature of the melodies, which seem to start and stop suddenly, without warning. Often it’s difficult to even find a melody–a lot of The Rite is more about color and texture.
Rhythm. To the best of your ability, can you tap a regular pattern of beats? Are some sections more regular than others? Particularly in the loud conclusions to act 1 and 2, the constant shifting of meter makes for extremely complex, and therefor exciting music.
Timbre. Listen for the number of variety of sounds from all families of instruments: woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion. You’ll find the orchestra used in ways that Beethoven or Berlioz would never had dreamed of.
Form. Obviously the story organizes the ballet to a certain extent, and we have descriptive titles for each of the sub-sections within the two acts. But there is no sonata form here, no ABA or ABACAD or other forms we’ve seen before. Rather there’s just sharp contrasts and unpredictable changes. (Again, think of it like putting dissimilar Lego blocks together or joining very different cars to form a train.)
To understand the riot that occurred at the 1913 premiere of The Rite we must consider Nijinsky’s choreography in addition to Stravinsky’s music.
Consider this: shortly after the ballet premiered in Paris, Pierre Monteaux, the conductor, presented Stravinsky’s music as a concert piece (that is, without dance or staging) to relatively high acclaim. No riot, no pushback. So clearly the music upset the audience only when paired with dancing.
The problem for us in the twenty-first century is that although Stravinsky’s music survives in notated form, Nijinsky’s choreography does not. In 1913, the ballet (with the choreography) was performed five times; another three performances followed in London. Then Diaghilev removed the ballet from the Ballets Russes repertory. By the time he decided to revive the work in 1920, a different choreographer was engaged: Leonide Massine. Massine updated the choreography, producing a version of the ballet that—at least for critics at the time who had seen the original 1913 production—bore little resemblance to Nijinsky’s.
The consensus was that the new choreography for The Rite was dry and straightforward. The dance journalist André Levinson’s wrote the following, which is a great passage for us because it contrasts Nijinsky’s and Massine’s choreographies and gives us a sense of what they must have been like:
What has Nijinsky made of this music which defies all translation into plastic terms? The sole result of the movements, as he imagined them, was the realization of the rhythm … But in Massine’s staging, the music does not succeed in truly moving the dancers … Nijinsky’s dancers were tormented by the rhythm. The present ones relax into marking the beat, and too often it escapes them. [André Levinson, “Les Deux Sacres”, translated by Deborah Loft in New performance 2 (1980), 21.]
Note that in this and the following passage, the concern is with audio-visual relations—that is, in what way dance and music are related. In an interview, Stravinsky endorsed what Levinson and his colleagues condemned, instead highlighting what he felt Massine had accomplished. Again, he gives us a sense of the contrast between the 1913 and 1920 choreographies. If the 1920 choreography, which Stravinsky is describing here, was only loosely coordinated with the music, the 1913 choreography–Nijinsky’s-must have been the opposite: very tightly coordinated with the music. I’m not talking here about simply keeping the beat, but rather the extent to which a dancer’s body mirrors the sound of each moment in the music.
Massine does not follow the music note by note or bar by bar. Quite the contrary, he battles against the meter, but keeps exactly to the rhythm. I will give you an example. Here is one bar of four, then one of five beats: Massine might make his dancers do three threes, which corresponds and adds up to exactly the same total, but goes better under the music than a note-by-note transference, which was the fault of the old choreography. And he starts up this battle, this slowing down or quickening, whether for two or twenty bars, but always falls back into accord with the section as a whole. [As quoted in Stephanie Jordan, Stravinsky Dances: Re-Visions across a Century (Alton, Hampshire : Dance Books, 2007), 440-41.]
To give this idea some terminology, imagine a spectrum ranging from pantomime (sometimes shortened to “mime”) to pure dance (or sometimes called dansant). In pantomime, music and dance are highly coordinated, with the dance mimicking musical movement on a local level (for example, in the classic ballet Swan Lake, a dancer depicts shooting an arrow from a bow at the moment we hear a musical passage that evokes the arrow flying through the air). In pure dance, music and dance are coordinated by pulse, but the focus is on stylized dance that has a much looser relationship to the music.
Back to Nijinsky and Massine. The main difference between their choreographies is the degree of pantomime. As you’ll see shortly, Nijinsky was almost all pantomime. This was another aspect of classical tradition turned on its head: in classical ballet, there was always way more pure dance than pantomime. So Massine’s 1920 choreography tried to restore some tradition to The Rite by increasing the amount of pure dance (which is really what Stravinsky is describing in that excerpt above).
Reconstructing Nijinsky’s Dance
But what did Nijinsky’s production actually look like? The best answer has come from a dance historian named Millicent Hodson, who spent years reconstructing Nijinsky’s lost choreography.
Read through Hodson’s essay “Searching for Nijinsky’s Sacre,” which explains how Hodson reconstructed a lost ballet score. You’ll want to follow up your reading of this essay with the excerpt from Hodson’s book I’ve included, particularly the material that begins on p. 2. As you read, think about the following questions:
What types of sources does Hodson use? To what extent can they give us a full picture of Nijinsky’s Le Sacre? What are their possible limitations?
Pay especially close attention to how Hodson describes dance postures (or a dance “vocabulary” as she calls it), both in words and in pictures. For example, look at the drawings at the bottom of p. 3 in Nijinsky’s Crime against Grace. How does this bodily posture differ from that of “classical” ballet?(Here you’ll want to revisit the excerpt from Giselle that I posted above.)