The Rite Of Spring

22 03 2010

Yesterday was officially the first day of Spring. I figure what better way to kick of the season than “The Rite Of Spring”. It’s a classic Igor Stravinsky composition that has an insane history. Stravinsky spent almost a full year (1912-1913) composing the piece which was very much ahead of it’s time, even making last minute revisions up until the night of its debut. That debut, the premiere of this epic work, is one of the wildest stories I’ve heard in music history. This is going to sound crazy but it’s known as one of the most famous musical riots ever. Yes… RIOTS! This is classical music we’re talking about too so just try to imagine the events of the evening erupting in a full on riot… crazy. It was premiered on May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. This was a time when classical music was more conventional and involved more demure themes. Not to mention that the compositions that were most popular were traditional ballets stooped in romanticism. Then, here comes Stravinsky with a piece that not only is intensely rhythmic but also features tonal dissonance like no other piece had done before. This day and age we are accustomed to such things in our music. In fact, dissonance is often used to create tension in music where it then shifts to consonance in order to resolve in a very sweet and natural sounding  manner. It’s a tool that is now used with great artistic license but in 1913 it was basically unheard of. This raucous premiere has been scrutinized heavily over the years by historians, musicologists and even neural scientists. This is where it really gets interesting. Scientists have found links in human brain activity to sound. I know, no surprise there but, more specifically, they have determined that when you hear a dissonant grouping of notes that uneasy feeling is not just emotional it’s actually a physiological reaction in your brain. As a result of the study researchers have concluded that when certain neurons responsible for perception patterns in sounds fail to find one, they may cause an excessive production of dopamine, which may result in a mental state close to schizophrenia and thereby contribute to rioting tendencies. To paint a picture of what happened that night, you have to imagine an audience of ballet goers all anticipating the status quo. Then the opening melody starts on bassoon and they begin to boo. The lead notes over the harmony starts to make them uneasy. As the choreographed performance ensues they grow more agitated. Soon there are loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. That is soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually erupts into a riot. The Paris police had arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance and the rest is history. Another interesting component of this story is how the human ear evolves. Stravinsky made another attempt with the same music, in the same venue almost a year later and it was received with much acclaim. You see, by that time the work had been heard enough times that people could make the connections necessary to process the sonic information. In listening to it now, it’s actually quite nice. The opening bassoon even sounds more sexy than coarse.

This event was featured in a fantastic episode of the WNYC (NPR) show Radiolab a few years back. The info I provided here is just a snippet of the full story. Fortunately, Radiolab does an amazing job of explaining not only the neurology behind it but also at capturing the feeling of what was going on at the time and how such chaos could sprout from a simple piece of music. It’s about an hour long but it’s extremely well produced and very easy to listen to. Stream it from WNYC’s website here… it’s worth it.

Here an abbreviated version of “The Rite Of Spring” by Hubert Laws.

The Rite Of Spring on Classical Notes

The Rite of Spring Riot on Wiki

WNYC’s Radiolab: Musical Language

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