On this date 100 years ago, the ballet “Le Sacre du printemps” (the rite of spring) received its first performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. It was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, the leading male dancer in Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the company that gave the performance. The music was by Igor Stravinsky, whose score bears a subtitle that translates into English as “pictures of pagan Russia in two parts.” Nijinsky strove to capture that pagan spirit through coarse gravity-bound dance steps, and that spirit was reinforced by Nicholas Roerich’s stage designs and costumes. Stravinsky reinforced all of this visual primitivism with his own brand of autochthonous qualities, including both harsh dissonance and uneven rhythms but structured around his own experiences of Russian folk music.
As all students of music history (and many students of general history) know, Diaghilev’s audience did not take kindly to all of that primitivism served up in such heady portions. Their reaction was, to say the least, disruptive, although there remains some debate over what first triggered the disruption. Stravinsky’s autobiography claims the audience was initially provoked by the high-register sonorities of the bassoon that opened the composition. Some dance historians, on the other hand, have argued that a hall full of members of Parisian high society, who had just enjoyed “Les Sylphides,” would simply not tolerate all of Nijinsky’s foot-stamping and grotesque poses.
To celebrate the anniversary of this historic occasion (both the premiere and the ensuing riot), SFS Media, the media production company of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), has put out its latest Blu-ray release. This offers a background documentary, conceived and presented by SFS Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), about “Le Sacre du printemps,” first prepared for broadcast in 2006 as part of the PBS Keeping Score series. The disc also includes a complete performance of the score, along with selections from Stravinsky’s earlier “Firebird” ballet.
This is basically an “upgraded reissue” of an earlier DVD release. Both the original DVD and the Blu-ray versions are available for purchase through a product page in the Symphony Store area on the SFS Web site. The DVD is also available for purchase from Amazon.com, but the Blu-ray version will not go out for general distribution until July 9. However, there is currently an Amazon.com page that will process pre-orders.
The heart of this video is the music itself. It is a live concert recording of a performance, which, to borrow language from MTT, may no longer be provocative enough to shock but still has the power to thrill. The video work provides an excellent guide to the almost unmanageable amount of orchestral activity that takes place as Stravinsky’s score unfolds. Thus, not only does MTT do a first-rate job of keeping his resources in balance while moving things along with intense energy; but also the video allows the viewer to sort out all of that activity, thus guiding the attention of the individual ear, so to speak. Last month I discussed an ingenious approach to abstract visualization that similarly guides the listener through Stravinsky’s complexity, but there is no substitute for watching a full orchestra as capably engaged in the performance of this music as SFS is.
On the other hand the documentary is likely to have more impact on those already familiar with this music than on those encountering it for the first time. Yes, MTT offers some informative demonstrations, including illustrating how music in the “Firebird” score was heavily influenced by Stravinsky’s teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and providing examples of some of the Russian folk sources Stravinsky probably knew. What is missing, on the other hand, is any account of the context in which Stravinsky assembled his nuts and bolts, so to speak. “Le Sacre du printemps” is, primarily, a narrative ballet; and, while MTT makes several references to stages in that narrative, they will only be recognized by those who already know the narrative as a whole.
For many this may not be problematic. Most are probably used to thinking of Stravinsky’s score as abstract music, more interested in the structural abstractions than in whether or not they denote anything. I might even argue that one can listen to the music this way, ignoring not only the narrative but also the title itself. However, this video has taken the trouble to show clips of the reconstruction of Nijinsky’s choreography as performed by the Joffrey Ballet; and, for at least some of those excerpts, it probably would have been more than a little beneficial to let the viewer know the narrative being served by such provocatively modernist choreography.