Monday, June 3, 2013

Stravinsky’s Le Sacre: 100 Years Old and Still All Rite

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1913...
One hundred years ago at the
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
with guest blogger Waldemar Hepstein

Guest contributor:  Waldemar Hepstein is an artist for No Comprendo Press, a publisher of alternative comics.  Hepstein’s work has appeared in the magazine Fidus and is collected in albums like 'Snork.’

Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) is a thing of beauty, terror, and wonder. Those who were present at the notorious premiere performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 29, 1913, probably would not have predicted a long life for what many may have perceived as barbaric noise.  One hundred years later, the Rite is still very much with us, and indeed has become one of the most frequently performed and recorded 20th century classical compositions.  And in this case, the cliché holds true:  It sounds as fresh today as when it was first heard.

The original ballet was performed only a handful of times, in both Paris and London.  The important contributions of Stravinsky’s collaborators, Vaslav Nijinsky (choreography) and Nicholas Roerich (scenery, costume designs and co-scenarist) appeared to be lost to history for many years.  Then, in the 1980s, researchers Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer pieced together a magnificent reconstruction, first staged by the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago in 1987.  It’s highly recommended for all admirers of the piece, for even if Rite of Spring may be slight on “plot” (its subtitle is simply “Tableaux of Pagan Life in Ancient Russia”), the visuals and choreography greatly enhance appreciation of the music.

In addition to various alternative choreographies, the drama-packed music of the Rite has inspired other visuals.  Undoubtedly the most famous example is Disney’s Fantasia (1940), in which the music is accompanied by a look at Earth’s prehistory.  A sort of crash course in evolution is followed by a visit with our planet’s early inhabitants, memorably including the most exciting dinosaur fight since King Kong (1933).  Purists have reviled Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement for Fantasia, which heavily shortens and takes other signficant liberties with Stravinsky’s score.  On the other hand, there’s little doubt that Fantasia helped introduce Le Sacre du Printemps to many people, including myself.  Needless to say, the Disney animation is impeccable.

A more recent visualization is a digital animation piece by Jay Bacal and Stephen Malikowski—a beautifully done, colorful presentation somewhat reminiscent of Fantasia’s interlude with the “visual soundtrack.”

Once considered strange, avant-garde and highbrow, the Rite of Spring is now part of the “establishment,” with a secure place among the great compositions. The 100th anniversary is currently being honored with a slew of performances, articles, seminars, re-issued recordings and other tributes.  Ol’ Igor would nod his head in appreciation—and would probably take it as no more than his due!  Long may the Rite continue to thunder.

Waldemar Hepstein

© 2013 Lee Price

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