Thesis: Music and History

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Music

Michael Tilson Thomas, the musical director of the San Francisco Symphony, describes Igor Stravinsky's 1913 "Rite of Spring" as a "burst of creative power that shook music to its foundations," (2006). Alsop (2007) similarly notes that "Rite of Spring" was a composition that "changed the course of music forever." Yet when Stravinsky's work is placed soberly within its historical context, "Rite of Spring" does not seem completely detached from the social, cultural, and political revolutions taking place throughout the Western world at the time of its composition. For example, the most notably new and notorious feature of "Rite of Spring" is its primal, possibly pagan nature but weaving tribal and pagan themes into Western art was not new in 1913. Painters like Paul Gauguin had worked similar motifs into their artwork decades before "Rite of Spring" was conceived. Likewise, Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness exposed the effects of colonialism on traditional non-Western societies.

However, Stravinsky was the first Western classical composer to undertake a similar synthesis of social commentary with worldly overtones. The "Rite of Spring" thus continues to be viewed as being groundbreaking. The opening performance of the Stravinsky ballet in 1913 coincided with the beginning of a new era of global consciousness. Ultimately, the intensity embodied by Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" perfectly paralleled the changes taking place throughout Europe and the world at large, as imperialism and colonialism were transforming the nature of cultures, warfare, and human history.

With "Rite of Spring," Stravinsky seems to have spearheaded a musical revolution that embraces the unfamiliar territory of world music within the Western classical tradition. Stravinsky's musical score for the ballet represented major breaks with the structure of Western music. The composition is filled with sounds that were new to most Western ears in 1913. Its structure was far less predictable than listeners had come to expect, and although dynamism was no stranger to Western music, Stravinsky's particular style of it did signify a creative act that was extraordinary and bold. As Thomas (2006) points out, "Rite of Spring" delivered soundscapes that were "totally unexpected to the audience's ears."

Like a more dramatic and more serious version of Shakespeare's a Midsummer Night's Dream, the Stravinsky ballet incorporates pagan elements delightfully. The lilting, sporadic, and staccato string parts are like fairies and elves dancing under the moonlight. A suppression of European pagan traditions had become a hallmark of Christianity and of the Enlightenment too: Europeans were believed to be beyond the need for fanciful stories and worldviews. Colonialism shattered the confidence in science that Europeans held so dearly. Contact with cultures that continued to practice age-old rituals and shamanistic medicine awoke many Europeans to the power of the primitive human consciousness.

Moreover, the age of industrialization had begun to reveal its dark side by the time Stravinsky wrote "Rite of Spring." Dissatisfaction with urban life and disgust with the landscape-scarring factories led artists like Gauguin to seek peace in the South Pacific. Likewise, industrialization meant a breakdown of traditional European values and social structures. Gender roles were changing. Population migrations, en masse, were significantly changing the political, social, and cultural landscape of both New and Old Worlds. The Industrial Age delivered the promise of revolutionary technologies and scientific breakthroughs. What the Industrial Age had failed to do was inspire the human spirit to reach new spiritual heights. Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was one among many artistic endeavors to bridge the modern mind with the ageless core of the human soul. That core can be found most readily in the tribal rhythms that inspired Stravinsky or in the colors of the Tahitian landscape that uplifted Gauguin. Like both Conrad and Gauguin, Stravinsky witnessed the devastating effects of colonization, urbanization, and industrialization. "Rite of Spring" represents one of the ways artists used their media as a form of social and political commentary.

A return to a simpler and purer way of life was a trend among artists during the turn of the twentieth century. One method of rediscovering the essence of humanity was by rekindling interest in folktales and myths. As a Russian, Stravinsky looked no farther than his culture's own rich folk heritages. Stravinsky's teacher Rimsky-Korsakov had also been directly "inspired by the old myths and epics and fairy tales" of Russia ("Revolutions in Music: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring" 2006). However, Stravinsky was the first to overtly break free from the rigidity that strangled Russian music until that time. The suppression of pagan thought and tribal motifs corresponded with the rise of a strong bureaucratic infrastructure in the new nation-states sprouting up all over Europe and affecting Russian national identity before the Revolution. With "Rite of Spring," pride in traditional Russian traditions erupted.

For the audience at the premier of "Rite of Spring" in Paris, the result was "scandalous," notes Kelly (1999). The music itself was criticized for being "angular, dissonant and totally unpredictable," as well as "primal, loud, raucous, and seemingly chaotic," (Kelly 1999; Thomas 2006). When analyzed in light of the traditional Russian influences on Stravinsky's composition, however, the "Rite of Spring" becomes a "wild, enthusiastic mixture of song and noise," ("Revolutions in Music: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring," 2006). For Stravinsky, "Rite of Spring" represented a perfect synthesis of modern musical sensibilities with tribal musical passion.

Stravinsky was born near St. Petersburg in June of 1882. His father was a classical musician, but Stravinsky was also exposed at an early age to the local folk music traditions of Ustilug, where the Stravinsky family estate was located (Thomas 2006). When working on "Rite of Spring," Stravinsky described a vision that transformed his approach to the composition. Stravinsky "saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite; sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring," (cited by Thomas 2006). The pagan ritual sacrifice theme of "Rite of Spring" contrasted sharply with the self-image of 1913 Parisians, who viewed themselves as being far removed from their own tribal roots. Stravinsky challenged his audience to understand the diversity of human worship and the effects of modernization on the human spirit. "Rite of Spring" became one way Stravinsky revealed pride in his Russian heritage during a tumultuous time in his nation's history.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 signified the culmination of the changes taking place throughout Europe in the early twentieth century. In many ways, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" is a harbinger of the chaos that would soon descend on Europe, and especially on Russia. The extreme dissonance and cacophony characterizing "Rite of Spring" are like warfare itself. World Wars One and Two also marked the dawn of a new era of globalization. Imperialism was at its height in 1913, but would soon falter as a foreign policy. "Rite of Spring" fits in seamlessly with the historical changes taking place not just in Russia but in the entire world at the time. A renewed interest in pre-Christian religions and cultures; an embrace of non-Christian values; and a revival of traditional folkways are all hallmarks of "Rite of Spring." That post-Impressionistic art and post-Colonial literature were contemporary with Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was not a coincidence.

For all its seeming chaos and its intensity, "Rite of Spring" flows. The experience of listening to the score is not unlike being in a boat on an ocean: during times of turmoil as well as calm. An uplifting and joyous piece at times, "Rite of Spring" never feels sinister. Even though its premier performance shocked the elite Parisian audience hearing and viewing "Rite of Spring," Stravinsky became highly regarded, the ballet "well-received," and he became an "instant star," (Thomas 2006). "Rite of Spring" serves as a tantalizing introduction to early twentieth century Russian music.

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Music and History.  (2008, December 19).  Retrieved May 19, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/music-history/36928

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"Music and History."  Essaytown.com.  December 19, 2008.  Accessed May 19, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/music-history/36928.