Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which has sparked countless controversies over its conception, composition and performance, is centered on the idea of the power of the collective over the individual; the haunting ritual performed before the sacrifice of a young maiden.
Stravinsky’s preoccupation with rite, ritual and myth pervades many of his large-scale theatre works as Jonathan Cross writes, focusing on objective representation over subjective expression, that is, the expression of the collective over the individual. Whilst this is particularly prevalent in The Rite, it’s also evident in Les Noces, Oedipus Rex and Agnon, all of which are based on stylised ancient-Greek and religious ceremonies.
Whilst I’ve studied this work and have listened to it countless times, I haven’t seen it performed for over four years. Having been to the London Philharmonic concert at the Southbank last Saturday as part of The Rest is Noise festival, I realised that this power of the collective is heightened enormously by the visual aspect of seeing this work live – more so than with many other works.
It’s not just the sheer size of the 100+ orchestra, it’s also the way that Stravinsky orchestrates the piece. For the majority of the music, the full orchestra is not used. The power of when it is, is both visually and audibly, immense. Seeing all the violinists attacking their instruments in rough, perfectly timed marcato bow strokes draws out the mechanical rather than melodic nature of the work – the whole orchestra is turned into a percussion section. (See 13:20 in the video below.)
This focus on the mechanical runs through many of Stravinsky’s works, including The Nightingale which juxtaposes real and mechanical birds, The Firebird with natural and supernatural creatures, and Petrushka who is half-puppet half-human.
The London Philharmonic’s performance was of an exceptional level, skillfully bringing together Stravinsky’s raw dynamism, complex cross-rhythms and moments of stasis. This is just one of the many performances of the Rite this year, with 2013 being a momentous year in the Rite‘s history, marking the centenary of its première. The only riot at this performance was the huge applause and standing ovation at the end.