To what extent can The Rite’s innovations be boiled down to rhythm alone

The Rite of Spring, first performed to much controversy in 1913, is a ballet unlike any other of its time, before its time or possibly even afterwards. It has almost nothing in common with the idealisms of Tchaikovsky. In terms of subject matter, it is vastly different even to Stravinsky’s earlier ballets. It is this difference, a plotline which is harsh and based not on fantasy or folk tales, but on supposed ancient tribal history, which separates it from its contemporaries and predecessors and is reflected so obviously in the music.

The most prominent musical difference between The Rite and other contemporary works is the popular claim that Stravinsky has minimized the influence of harmony, melody and overall tonality at the expense of rhythm and meter; in other words, that rhythm is the driving force of the work. From the perspective of the casual listener, this manifests itself as the phenomenon of the percussive nature of instruments that are normally melodious. Stravinsky himself acknowledged the importance of the subject matter to the resultant music from the very start of the composition process.

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The idea of Le Sacre de printemps came to me while I was still composing The Firebird. I had dreamed a scene of pagan ritual in which a chosen sacrificial virgin danced herself to death. This vision was not accompanied by concrete musical ideas, however… 1 One could surmise that the order in which the two entities – music and storyline – arrived is of great relevance. However, although the above quote is the most recent and the best-known, other accounts given by the composer seem to contradict it, suggesting that it was the musical ideas that came first. Nonetheless, when compared to The Firebird or the works of Tchaikovsky, which were specifically commissioned, the desired musical effect to be composed presented to the composer half-formed, it is understandable that Stravinsky’s decision to choose a radical and original plot (in terms of subject matter previously covered by the arts) had a profound effect.

The academic with the most hard-line approach to the issue of rhythm and meter versus harmony and tonality is Pierre Boulez, who states, in an essay on The Rite, that ‘Harmonic relations or melodic figures [… serve to support a rhythmic invention’ and that ‘Before worrying about what chord we are hearing, we are sensitive to the pulse emitted by this chord [… ] what we hear is the rhythmic impulse almost in its pure state. ‘3 The implication of this is that any melodic or harmonic variation has been composed merely to facilitate rhythmic development. Few, if any, researchers would agree entirely with Boulez’s uncompromising view of the work. However, clear evidence is presented for prominent rhythmic characteristics, often supported by less prominent melodic and harmonic features.

Academics such as Pieter C. an den Toorn, as well as Boulez himself, make the claim that The Rite is composed of independent blocks, grouped together to form motifs, and that any harmonic progression can only occur between blocks. Van den Toorn then identifies two rhythmic types: the former characterised by an irregular metre and groups of blocks which ‘alternate with one another in constant and rapid juxtaposition’; the latter characterised by metric regularity and blocks that form ‘motives that repeat according to periods, cycles or spans’, as can be seen throughout the ‘Dance of the Earth’ and at the end of extended movements. In his opinion, it is rhythm and meter that determines each block, with harmonic progression taking an inferior position. Peter Hill disputes the claim that the blocks that make up The Rite are completely independent of each other. He outlines several instances whereby previous motifs provide a context for later motifs, both rhythmically and harmonically.

The most prominent example of this is at the opening of ‘Augurs of Spring’, with the famous irregularly accented quaver chords. Whilst they appear to come out of nowhere, if we turn back a page to fig. 2 + 4, we see a semiquaver ostinato on pizzicato violins which outlines not only the pulse and metre of the proceeding passage but also the notes of the repeated quaver chords (Db Bb Eb Bb), in a broken chord-like pattern. This creates not just a relation between the two, but makes the former act as a prerequisite to the latter. The pattern of Db Bb Eb Bb is re-established throughout the movement, with the quaver chord ostinato intersecting passages featuring broken chords layered underneath chromatic scales and a recurring Ab – F ostinato on the Cor Anglais.

This culminates in the tune of the ‘old woman’ at fig. 19 which makes use of the quaver chord ostinato’s pulsating pattern of accents but fully embraces the key signature (unlike the quaver chord ostinato); a further example of Stravinsky’s rhythmic preparation of motives which, in Hill’s words, are ‘the way that he engineers a context in which they are heard correctly and hence to the maximum effect’.

Hill states furthermore that the rhythms are ‘not static, but because of their changing context are in a constant state of evolution. ‘ Another example of interdependent blocks is before the ‘Sacrificial Dance’, where a regular pulse and metre is used to ‘break down the implacable quaver rhythm of “Ritual Action of the Ancestors”, which [… ] is the climax of the unvarying rhythmic type. ‘ 5 Even though its importance is clear, it would be foolish to look at The Rite purely in terms of rhythm.

Radical though it was, Stravinsky’s most famous composition is barely comparable to the atonal works of Webern or Schoenberg. After all, The Rite is in no way atonal; it is polytonal at best. There is an apparent sense of tonal centre. Many of his themes are simple and diatonic, and what may appear at first to be cluster chords is in fact the amalgamation of two chords a semitone apart, the most obvious example being at the start of ‘Augurs of Spring’.

Still, there is often an ambiguity over whether the overall tonality is major or minor at any given moment. 6 On the one hand, signs of tonality, albeit in the form of polytonality, are a demonstration that Stravinsky is conforming to contemporary standards, as opposed to Expressionistic works which do not. The Rite is hard to compare even with contemporary Impressionistic works whose harmony is often purely incidental, almost meaningless at points.

Yet it is still somewhat difficult to argue that an overall impression of harmonic importance has been achieved; if the listener cannot ascertain tonality or harmonic progression without careful score analysis, are these factors of any importance to the work’s intended audience? One aspect of the work, perhaps one that has been undervalued by certain researchers, is the influence of folk music. Richard Taruskin, in an extended essay, demonstrates the prominence and importance of folk influence upon The Rite.

He begins by pinpointing Stravinsky’s revelation that the opening bassoon melody was taken from a collection of Lithuanian folk songs. 7 Stravinsky later said that it was the only folk melody in that work, but acknowledged that anything else that sounds like a folk melody is due to his ‘powers of fabrication’ tapping ‘some unconscious “folk memory” ‘. 8 Whether such motifs are based on actual folk melodies or not, however, can be viewed as somewhat irrelevant; the fact remains that Stravinsky, in this period of his life, was a nationalist composer, and this fact can be used to explain the melodic simplicity of The Rite.

Bi?? la Barti?? k points out that The Rite’s melodies often consist of short motives which are repeated in ostinato form, and that this practice is typical of a certain form of Russian Music. 9 After analysing the above sources (among others) and the work itself, identifying more motives of folk origin, Taruskin concludes his essay by arguing that Stravinsky’s purpose in using folk (or folk-like) melodies in The Rite was to liberate himself from mainstream art music. 0 Any piece of music is of course composed of many factors. In the case of The Rite, it is easy to see that rhythm plays a larger part than normal. As other researchers have established, to claim that other factors such as harmony and melody are unimportant is short sighted.

One viewpoint, taken by Eric Walter White, is that the harmonic, tonal, metric and rhythmic aspects of the work are competing with each other, creating ‘tremendous internal tension’. 1 Nonetheless, it would be pertinent to say that rhythm is the driving force, the part that holds together the structure of the work. Few works have caused as much controversy and heated debate as The Rite; it was certainly revolutionary for its time. It continues to captivate audiences, in a way that is different to other 20th Century styles of art music, and it is the dramatic, instantly noticeable shift in importance of each musical factor that truly makes it unique.