Stravinsky was born into a musical family, but despite his musical roots his father really wanted him to become a lawyer. Stravinsky even got a law degree, while taking lessons from the great Korsakov.
Rite of Spring was intended to suggest ritual sacrifice and dance on stage. The idea of a pagan Russia really titillated people. It was intended to shock and horrify people. This was not about being beautiful but, shocking, brute force. It makes use of, like other nationalistic pieces of music, folk styles. The idea is that Stravinsky would actually have some folk materials embedded into this piece as kinds of musical archaeological artifacts.
The choreography as you might imagine was, well, brutal, spasmodic, jerking, crazy. The Rite of Spring launches modernism in the same way Picasso does with Cubism. Its a perfect musical analogy. Picasso was in fact used by the impressario to design some sets for ballet-rich productinos.
In the opening of the Rite of Spring, there’s an interesting instrument which sounds ancient. I would have guessed a clarinet or a flute, but in fact, its a bassoon. Stravinsky has the bassoon playing in the highest extreme registry. This might strike fear in the heart of the bassoon player. In this opening tune, a Lithuanian folk tune, is played so high, it automatically puts us somewhere exotic and distant.
This is absolutely not tonal. Now, in Debussy, I see the language of the tonality, but tried very hard to thwart it. Things like exotic scales, parallel motion, sought to erase the stronghold of the tonic. With Wagner, I see tonality pushed to its limits. I cannot tell what the tonic of Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan is. But its still clearly a tonal piece, we’re still hearing the language of dominant cords pushing towards a tonic, even if don’t get that tonic. In fact, that piece works because we know that language, and if we’re denied the tonic, we know we’re being denied something, and we want it. With Stravinsky we’re not hearing tonal music. But this Lithuanian tune could be in a tonal context. What makes it not tonal is the vertical aspect of this piece. And this is what makes this piece interesting. Horizontally, we actually get a lot of tunes in the piece. But these tunes are often lost, because vertically, this piece is very dissonant. And there is no, ZERO, goal-directed harmony in this piece.
We hear instruments moving up and down like primordial ooze, not really going anywhere, and in fact moving up and down like parallel intervals–but they’re dissonant parallel intervals.
The bassoon melody seems stuck in one place, in fact, its meandering in one spot. We have a great deal of forward motion. We have layers being added. This is a technique that Stravinsky uses, layers being added that are static, and no tonal language. This piece moves forward by accumulation, not by development. The piece builds in excitement, but by sheer mass, by layers being added on and on.
All the layers start coming together in swarming, atonal masses, until the opening bassoon solo returns. This introduction is called the Adoration of the Earth. The second part is the Sacrifice itself. Its as if we’re editing a film together. Imagine we had different reels of film, each one with fairly static material. We take a little snip of reel A, and add a little snip of reel B. We just keep snapping between them. It’s like a cut and splice technique. And these snapping reels have no forward tonal motion.
This piece does, however, have rhythm. Stravinsky has a way to treat the orchestra as a giant percussion machine. After the bassoon solo, Stravinsky gives us a pulse. And again, new layers are added on top of that. Every so often, we hear a little bit of folk tunes. This is mixed throughout the entire piece with a certain kind of dissonance.
Usually when people say that a piece is dissonant, they mean that it is ugly, and this is really a shame. Dissonance and beauty or ugliness really have nothing to do with each other. Dissonance simply means that two pitches vibrate strongly against one another. Any two pitches can be more or less dissonant, but it doesn’t mean they’re more or less beautiful. When people say they don’t like dissonant music, it really doesn’t make sense, because even in Brahms we have consonance and dissonance, and we need it because that’s what moves his pieces forward. Without dissonance, the world would be pretty boring.