National Symphony Orchestra Performs Rite of Spring, Scheherazade
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About Stravinsky’s *_The Rite of Spring: *_
The Rite of Spring, the third and most revolutionary of the ballet scores Stravinsky composed for the legendary impresario Serge Diaghilev, was written between 1911 and 1913. The ballet’s premiere was given on May 29 of the latter year at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky (who also danced in the performance) and décor by Nicholas Roerich (who helped with the scenario as well, and received the dedication of the score); Pierre Monteux conducted.
Stravinsky burst from obscurity to world fame literally overnight in June 1910, when Diaghilev introduced his first ballet, __The Firebird. __Both that work and Petrushka, which followed a year later, celebrate Russian tales and traditions, and incorporate actual folk tunes. __The Rite of Spring __also makes use of some folk material, but there is nothing else at all traditional in it—nothing, surely, of the fairy-tale charm or alluring brightness of the two earlier ballet scores in this depiction of a prehistoric ritual in which a young woman is chosen by her tribe to dance herself to death in propitiation of the gods of spring. The premiere of this ballet in 1913 turned into a full-scale riot, and more than a few commentators over the years have referred to that event as the real beginning of the 20th century in music.
While __The Rite of Spring __is seldom introduced without reference to the “scandal” of its 1913 premiere, the “scandal” was perhaps as much a manifestation of pre-World War I tensions as a reaction to the music or the staging. There were screams and catcalls which actually did drown out the huge orchestra at times. Diplomats and dignitaries who did not leave in outrage over the first few bars exchanged blows; it is said that duels were arranged and that there were “diplomatic consequences.” But the resourceful musicologist Peter Eliot Stone has pointed out that the riot was not set off by the music alone, novel and inflammatory though it was at the time; in part, he observes, it was a reaction on the part of Frenchmen whose national sensibilities had been affronted by various other factors involved in the production.
While the ballet has been revived and re-choreographed from time to time, __The Rite of Spring __has really belonged to the orchestra, not to the world of dance, since that first concert performance in 1914. When Stravinsky revised the orchestration in 1947 it was definitely with the concert hall in mind, not the theater. In the 91 years since the music was first heard, new generations have arisen to whom the work is no longer revolutionary but is simply part of the “standard repertory.” Many of today’s listeners were introduced to this music before they discovered Beethoven or Brahms, and responded to its vitality, its mystique and its powerful momentum rather than its novelty. __
The Rite of Spring __may no longer set off riots, but it still packs quite a wallop, and there is still nothing quite like it—despite the countless attempts at imitation. Stravinsky himself was perhaps more acutely aware of the work’s uniqueness than anyone else. As Rollo H. Myers observed some fifty years ago, in his article on the composer in __Grove V __, “having achieved what he set out to do in the Rite, he wisely decided not to attempt anything further on these lines . . . ; from this point onwards he altered his course.”
__Scheherazade, __completed in the summer of 1888, was given its premiere in St. Petersburg on November 3 of that year, with the composer conducting.
In the late 1880s, when Rimsky-Korsakov composed Scheherazade, enormous changes were taking place in the character of concert music. More than fifty years earlier, in the __Symphonie fantastique, __Hector Berlioz had provided a stunning demonstration of how the resources of the modern orchestra could be used to provide previously unimagined color content to enhance the descriptive power of dramatic music. In his second visit to Russia, toward the end of 1867, Berlioz provided an irresistible stimulus for Russian composers, who responded with particular enthusiasm—and thus began a productive Franco-Russian interpollination which, we might say, reached its symbolic peak in Maurice Ravel’s orchestral setting of __Pictures at an Exhibition, __which the Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned and introduced in Paris in 1922.
The year in which Rimsky completed __Scheherazade __was the very year in which the young Richard Strauss completed the first of his great tone poems, __Don Juan, __and Gustav Mahler completed the score of his First Symphony. Strauss and Mahler, of course, knew a thing or two about exploiting the orchestra to paint a picture of tell a story, and Strauss even brought out his own edition of Berlioz’s book on orchestration, but the Russians and the French were drawn to two particular sources of tales to be told that provided very conspicuous opportunities for new degrees of exploration in the world of orchestral color: fairy tales and legends in general, and more particularly tales from exotic cultures, distant in both time and place
Like Berlioz, Rimsky wrote his own book on orchestration (in which he understandably used numerous examples from the present work) and also published his memoirs. In the latter, which he called My Musical Life, he noted that after reading the __Arabian Nights’ Entertainments __he conceived “an orchestral suite in four movements, closely knit by the community of its themes and motives, yet representing, as it were, a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of Oriental character.”
By way of explaining the title Scheherazade, he wrote a brief introduction to be printed in the score and in the program for the work’s premiere: “The Sultan Schariar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales, told seriatim, for a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely.”
Many wondrous things were related to the Sultan Schariar by the Sultana Scheherazade. For her tales she took verses from the poets and words from the songs of the people, and intermixed the former with the latter. The first movement, accordingly, is known as “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” The commanding theme that opens the work is the voice of the Sultan demanding his entertainment, and the sinuous one from the violin is the voice of Scheherazade herself as she begins her tales.
“The Tale of the Kalender Prince” comes next. The Kalenders were a particular category of fakir, roving monks who turned up at Eastern courts and bazaars dispensing stories, magic tricks and wit in exchange for a coin or a night’s lodging. The “Kalender Prince” was one of those mendicants who turned out to be a nobleman in disguise. That some images as well as themes travel from ovement to movement in the work is indicated by the composer’s note that a piccolo motif in this episode is “a sort of sketch of Sinbad’s bird, the roc.”
The voluptuous slow movement is a tale of “The Young Prince and the Young Princess.” said to be Prince Kamar al-Zanna and Princess Budur, “created so much alike that they might be taken for twins.”
Several tales are brought together in the finale: The Festival at Baghdad," “The Sea,” “The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock Surmounted by a Bronze Warrior.” Rimsky had orchestrated parts of Borodin’s opera __Prince Igor __just before composing Scheherazade, and the flavor of the Polovtsian Dances is felt in his evocation of the Baghdad revels. The character of the Sultan is utterly transformed at the end of the work, from the unyielding sternness with which the sequence began to a warm expansiveness born of the thousand and one nights with his incomparable story-teller.
About the Ticket Supplier: The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, located on 17 acres overlooking the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., is America’s living memorial to President Kennedy as well as the nation’s busiest arts facility, presenting more than 2,000 performances each year. The Center is home to seven theaters: the Concert Hall, the Opera House, the Eisenhower Theater, the Family Theater, the Terrace Theater, the Theater Lab, and the Terrace Gallery. In addition, as part of the Kennedy Center’s Performing Arts for Everyone outreach program, free performances take place each evening at 6 p.m. on the Millennium Stage. In addition to offering annual series of the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington National Opera, theater, ballet, dance, chamber music, jazz, and performances for young audiences, the Kennedy Center presents festivals celebrating the arts and culture of countries and regions around the world.