Happy Centennial to the Rite of Spring

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky's monumental and groundbreaking ballet The Rite of Spring.

Much lore surrounds the premiere, about the supposed riot sparked by the performance, and the opening solo in the high register of the bassoon. A lot of that lore is quite apocryphal. The riot was allegedly staged, and was more in relation to Najinsky's choreography than the music, interestingly to note that none of the reviews of the premiere even mentioned the bassoon solo. The "riot" term also sparks connotations in our mind that indicate that it was a bigger deal than it likely was.

The bassoon solo was also not terribly out of range for the French basson used on the premiere. In fact, bassoonists will note that the earlier ballet by Stravinsky, the Firebird, actually goes to a high E, and does so in a much more difficult context than the opening solo (it's in the Infernal Dance, doubled in the trumpet, so nobody pays it any mind). Our musicologist friend of the store, David Wells, shared a story with me that he tracked down the instrument that was likely used on the premiere. At least, it's the proper age and was owned by the player that was on the payroll for the premiere of the Rite. The particular instrument used in that performance had the appropriate keys, and the player was trained in such a way that the opening would not have been unusually high for the standards of the day. Is it challenging to play this solo in a musical way? Yes, of course, especially on a German/Heckel system bassoon.

I do not mean to belittle the Rite in any way. It is one of the most important orchestral works of the 20th Century, if not THE most important work of the 20th Century. The instrumentation ideas set forth in the first 7 minutes of the piece are a challenge to the established practices of orchestration. The tonal content is daring and explores the orchestra in a way that I can't find anyone else doing before.

If you haven't yet, this short series of videos on Youtube is a recreation of the original choreography, in an inspired performance by the Joffrey Ballet in 1989. It's in 3 parts.


And if you're feeling adventurous, jazz bassoonist Paul Hanson took elements of the Rite and mashed them up in a jazz-rock rendition of some of the dances.

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