The Musical Roots of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

From Russian folk music to Scriabin’s Le Poéme de l’extase (“The Poem of Ecstasy”), Music Director Thomas Dausgaard leads a journey into the origins of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

By Andrew Stiefel

Few works have developed more of a mythology about them than Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Its riotous colors and violent rhythms are rumored to have started protests at the world premiere — a story Stravinsky was only too happy to encourage.

In truth, the protests likely had more to do with the ballet’s choreography than Stravinsky’s score. The same Parisian audiences who decried Vaslav Nijinsky’s heavy-footed ballet adored the concert version when Stravinsky staged a performance a year later. Rather than a failure, The Rite of Spring was an almost instant success.

When asked about his inspiration for the work, Stravinsky maintained that the music came unbidden to his mind. But as musicologists (that is, people who study the history of music) have shown, Stravinsky drew inspiration from dozens of sources.

This weekend, Music Director Thomas Dausgaard leads the Seattle Symphony on a journey into the origins of Stravinsky’s most celebrated work as part of the of the 2019–2020 Delta Air Lines Masterworks Season at Benaroya Hall.

From live performances of Russian and Ukrainian folk music to Scriabin’s Le Poéme de l’extase (“The Poem of Ecstasy”), Dausgaard takes audiences on a journey through different musical traditions. The concert is a continuation of his roots programming with the Seattle Symphony, which explores composers’ roots of inspiration.

Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy

The earliest origins of Stravinsky’s inspiration might, at least in part, be owed to another Russian composer: Alexander Scriabin. Completed in 1908, almost a decade before Stravinsky’s infamous work, Scriabin’s Le Poéme de l’extase (“The Poem of Ecstasy”) shares a ritualistic fascination with Stravinsky’s later work.

Blending influences from Nietzsche, Hinduism and his own notions, Scriabin created a celebration of “The Creative Spirit, i.e., the Universe at Play,” as he wrote in his program notes. The music ventures to the edge of, and even beyond, the familiar musical harmonies.

Stravinsky attended the 1909 performance in St Petersburg. He would later claim the music “suffered from a severe case of musical emphysema” — but a few months later he was working on his own ritual of ecstasy.

Folk Music Influences

If Scriabin’s Poem inspired the theme of The Rite, the folk music traditions of Ukraine and Russia inspired the music itself. Dausgaard has invited a group of folk singers to join the orchestra to help illuminate the influences of these different traditions.

A posed group of dancers in the original production of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring, showing costumes and backdrop by Nicholas Roerich. (1913)
A posed group of dancers in the original production of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring, showing costumes and backdrop by Nicholas Roerich. (1913)

Together, Dausgaard and the ensemble have composed a tapestry that weaves selections of folk music into the fabric of Stravinsky’s Rite. It’s a little like listening to a wild mixtape that blends historical field recordings with 20th century modernism.

“With the Rite we now know how Stravinsky in his sketches transformed and broke up every-day-folk-tunes into deeply personal and groundbreaking music, owing melody, rhythm and even harmony to the origins of the folk tunes,” explains Dausgaard, who arranged this section of the concert himself.

“I find it inspiring for my own approach to be aware of the possible sources of inspiration for composers,” shares Dausgaard. “Stravinsky immersed himself in this music as he worked, and this concert will recreate a little of that experience for our audiences.”

After intermission, Dausgaard and the Seattle Symphony will present a full concert performance of The Rite of Spring, hopefully brighter and sharper for a deeper understanding of how the composer found his inspiration.

Journey into the inspirations and history of Stravinsky’s most celebrated work, The Rite of Spring, with Music Director Thomas Dausgaard and the Seattle Symphony, November 21 & 23 at Benaroya Hall.

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Thomas Dausgaard’s performances are sponsored by the Scan|Design Foundation by Inger and Jens Bruun.

Posted on November 19, 2019

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