Celebrating Stravinsky’s Legacy with ASO

Celebrating Stravinsky’s Legacy with ASO

Classical composer Pierre Boulez anointed Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) as the genuine “birth certificate” of modernism. Many scholars have commented on Stravinsky’s uncanny ability to embody the new sound of his century — and of the modern era. Often these comments are restricted to his influence on classical music. However, a broader view reveals an influence into far-reaching genres that Stravinsky could never have imagined. Composers from a breathtakingly wide range of styles have stated their indebtedness to The Rite of Spring and its composer. The heavy metal rock group Metallica cited Stravinsky, alongside the English rock band, Black Sabbath, as a major influence. Frank Zappa claimed that he had listened to The Rite of Spring “more than any human being alive”. Many jazz artists, including Charlie Parker, have looked to Stravinsky for inspiration. Film composers such as Danny Elfman and John Williams often cite this master as their muse. In our own backyard, Washington, D.C., gave birth to the influential punk band, Rites of Spring.

On May 18 at the Schlesinger Concert Hall, the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra will celebrate the enduring legacy and influence of Igor Stravinsky’s most iconic composition, The Rite of Spring. We will do so in the context of another masterpiece from the Russian repertoire, Scheherazade, which was composed by Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. These two companion pieces by teacher and student are inextricably linked as they both embody the Russian tradition that Rimsky-Korsakov passed down to Stravinsky. Rite of Spring and Scheherazade were both choreographed and performed within the same period by Serge Diaghilev’s groundbreaking dance company the Ballets Russes, and they share a uniquely Russian epic style built from a series of dramatic tableaus. Both pieces employ a distinctive melodic and formal structure derived from the Russian penchant for mosaic construction and ornamental motifs, and both are characterized by bold and colorful orchestration.

However, as much as these two Russian masterpieces have in common, the impact that they had, and continue to have, on musicians and audiences could not be more different. Scheherazade is backward-looking as it represents the end of an era — an embodiment of nineteenth century Romanticism and Old World elegance. By contrast, Stravinsky’s music looks boldly forward — it stands on the cusp of a dynamic new century.

Ever since the riotous premiere of The Rite of Spring one hundred years ago, the musical elements it helped unleash have mesmerized the world. This global seduction lies in what musicians call “the beat” or “the groove” — an unrelenting, at times even savage pulse which becomes the driving force of the music — its true heartbeat. This intoxicating beat, combined with an unabashedly visceral kind of music-making — often with implicit if not explicit sexual overtones — is derived from the music of our tribal roots. These elements tap into a deeply profound and primal human need. Though they have always been present in isolated world traditions, this driving pulsation and unapologetically visceral music-making were never a part of mainstream urban culture before The Rite of Spring. Today, these elements have not only become mainstream, but their influence and omnipresence continue to increase at an exponential rate to a growing number of cultures throughout the world via the internet. It is as if the world’s appetite for “the beat” and primal music-making is insatiable.

The Rite of Spring was indeed prescient. It heralded a new era that left little room for the aristocratic sensibilities and ultra-elegance of the nineteenth century that was about to be shattered by two successive world wars. One hundred years after its notorious world premiere, audiences still celebrate this music’s power. While listening to and conducting this astonishing symphonic score, I find it a thrilling shock to the nervous system. It heightens my sense of being alive and awakens uncomprehending awe. If you are truly open to the extraordinarily unique qualities in The Rite of Spring, you can still be transformed by its elemental power.

Here’s to another one hundred years. See you at the concert.