Igor’s Asymmetry Racket

The last post was about the scandalous uproar at the ballet premiere of The Rite of Spring.  The riot at opening night of The Rite is one of the most famous stories in music.  On February 18, 1914 the music was played in its first concert performance (music only, no dance).  This orchestra premiere (nine months after the ballet) was well received and got wonderful reviews from the beginning.


The Rite of Spring is one of those unavoidable pieces of music for any musician living in the last hundred years.  Love it or hate it, one has to somehow come to terms with it.  The Rite of Spring has a subtitle “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”.The structure of the piece is in two halves, with each half containing several scenes.  The first half is titled  “The Adoration of the Earth” and the second “The Sacrifice”.  The “storyline” is loosely about bronze-age rituals in pagan Russia. The second half concludes with a virgin (The Chosen One) dancing herself to death as a sacrifice to bring the tribe prosperity.  This is all not terribly accurate, historically speaking.  Joseph Kerman called it “dubious anthropology, but great theater”.  I would agree.

The earthy rhythms of the music are supposed to bring an element of “primitivism” to the tribal scenes. Stravinsky layers his musical material one on top of another.  He takes one bit of music with uneven rhythms and accents, then adds a layer of new material of a different length onto it. By adding more layers and repeating material of different lengths, the musical elements are always combining in different ways.  They don’t line up the same way every time. The resulting cacophony was lovingly termed “Igor’s asymmetry racket” by composer Harold Shapero. One of the best demonstrations of Stravinsky’s technique of combining music into polyrhythms is in a lecture by Leonard Bernstein.  Lenny gave this talk in 1973 at Harvard as part of the Charles Eliot Norton lecture series.  Below is a link to a 10 minute excerpt from that lecture series.

Leonard Bernstein speaking about The Rite of Spring

The video is an orchestra performance by the New England Conservatory . (Email readers click here)

Michael Tilson Thomas also did an hour long episode of the PBS program “Keeping Score” all about The Rite of Spring.  It is well worth the time to watch.

Keeping Score – Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring


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