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The ancient pagan ritual that began the modern era in music and dance is coming to Chattanooga. OK—the ritual itself remains firmly stuck in Russian prehistory. But the work it inspired composer Igor Stravinsky to create is another story.
Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”—the full ballet, with Stravinsky’s score and choreography by Vaslav Nijinksy—caused a riot or near-riot in the theater when it premiered in Paris on May 29, 1913. From a distance of nearly 101 years, it’s hard to get an authoritative account, but it seems that believers in the old ways of making art and supporters of the new ones came to blows inside the theater over what they were seeing and hearing.
The uproar from the audience was so loud the dancers couldn’t hear the music. A few dozen people were ejected, police may or may not have been called, and enough order was restored for the performance to finish.
Next week, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” makes its Chattanooga premiere, performed by the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra on April 24 at the Tivoli. Recently, I sat down with Taylor Brown, principal double bass player with the CSO, to continue a conversation we began a few weeks before about this century-old music.
“The piece itself signifies the beginning of the modern era as far as art goes,” says Brown. “It sparked a lot of stuff as far as music, painting, dance, poetry. It depicts ancient Russian pagan rituals to bring in spring in which they take a virgin. She dances until she dies. It’s very much a modern piece but harkening [back] and looking at ancient prehistoric music.”
Stravinsky was trying to capture what he thought the music actually would have sounded like, which he imagined was very simple. And the melodies in “Rite of Spring”, Brown says, are “very narrow” compared to the CSO’s most recent performance of Prokofiev’s fifth symphony, which uses the whole orchestra to make the theme. In “Rite of Spring”, he explains, “The melodies are very compact, few notes, all in a close range.”
What brings the piece into the modern era is its use of polytonality and polyrhythm. Music up to that point was tonal, although some composers were already moving away from tonality.
“Stravinsky is not there yet,” says Brown. “He’s still doing a tonal thing, but he’s stacking them, so it’s one key on top of another key at the exact same time, so it sounds just raw. It’s just crazy, but it’s very organized, not random at all. There’s moments where it sounds like there’s accents that jut forward and you don’t know where it’s coming from, but its very organized. It’s like several rhythmic ideas happening at once, all independent.”
Like a lot of foundational classical music, parts of “Rite of Spring” have become familiar over the years. The opening notes—an eerie, high-pitched bassoon solo—may be remembered from a segment of Walt Disney’s animated Fantasia. Although Disney softened some of the rough edges of the visual story—no virgin death, go figure—time does not seem to have domesticated Stravinsky’s piece as much as it has some other groundbreaking art.
For example, the Impressionist painters were almost as provocative to early 20th century artistic orthodoxy, but their work has become decorative poster art since then. Stravinsky’s music remains challenging for both musicians and audience.
“For us it’s very challenging to play,” Brown says. “It takes an intense amount of concentration to not make mistakes. It doesn’t feel comfortable, ever.”
So even when the piece sounds like a machine moving steadily, the way the music is written means it’s never comfortable for the musicians to play. But Brown thinks that necessarily agitated way of playing adds something to the piece. In the final movement, he says, “It’s like the machine takes over. What’s happening is the dancer is dancing herself to death. It’s as if she’s not doing it herself, something has taken over her. And the music depicts it well. It’s out of control, but still sounds perfectly in control and agitated for the musicians.”
It’s clear that Brown loves this music, which he first performed in college at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, where his music director taught the students to play without a conductor.
“I understand what the grooves are going to be when it locks into place,” he says. “It’s not going to be easy, but I didn’t have to start from ground zero.”
And the audience?
“I think it will anger some people,” he says. “I’m OK with that. It’s our job. If you don’t want musicians and artists to push you a bit, make you feel uncomfortable sometimes, then you don’t want to expand yourself as an audience member and an enjoyer of art. We do entertaining things, but we’re not entertainers. Our first goal is to be artistic. This orchestra and this community need a piece like this.”
For more information about the CSO’s April 24 performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, visit chattanoogasymphony.org