Worth a riot

We did Le Sacre du Printemps this week. What a great piece of music.
The audience at the Paris premiere in 1913 (conducted by Pierre
Monteux, who was the mentor of two of my favorite conductors, George
Cleve and David Zinman) deserves a lot of credit for their riot. They
recognized that they were present at a world-historical event.

Sacre is, more than any other work, the soundtrack of the 20th century. Most 20th century music that has entered the repertoire of professional orchestras couldn’t have been written in the absence of Sacre. Most scores to sci-fi or horror flicks depend totally on the language that Stravinsky created.

It’s still an astonishing piece. My first reaction to hearing it is always “where did that come from?” Even after Petrouchka and Firebird, it still seems to have come out of nowhere.

My only problem with Sacre (aside from trying to refuse the multiple opportunities for unscheduled solos) is that it doesn’t sound anything like spring to me. Nor does most of it sound like “Pictures from pagan Russia” (Stravinky’s subtitle), nor any kind of “coronation,” which apparently is the literal translation of "sacre" from the French. It is indeed savage music, but the savagery sounds very industrial and high-tech to me. And, for a work about spring, it seems relentlessly grim. It sounds more like worlds being torn apart than dances of young girls or worship of the earth.

I can’t get out of my head the notion that Sacre, which was written between 1912 and 1913, was far more about the catastrophe that was about to happen to Europe than what Stravinsky himself thought. – that, in fact, it really was about the tearing apart of a world. Obviously he knew what he meant to write about. And it’s clear from the Niall Ferguson’s magisterial account of World War I, The Pity of War, that what was known then as “the Great War” was not anticipated by most people. But creation on the level of a work like Sacre seems exempt from the normal rules, and the other truly great composer working then, Sibelius, had just finished one of the darkest and most despairing works in the repertoire, his fourth symphony (although he didn’t think it was about the war either).

Anyway, the performance went very well. It’s not a piece we do often (the last time was in 1995), so it’s always an event. And it’s not a piece that most conductors get to do often, either. So getting through it as well as we all did felt very good.

Preceding the Stravinsky on the second half was the Antheil Jazz Symphony. The stage setup for the two is quite different, so our new principal cellist, Joe Johnson, was enlisted by management to entertain the audience while the stage crew was shoving and hauling. Boy did he ever. He even got them all singing vari0us motifs from Sacre in counterpoint. I’d say that he’s wasted on the cello, except that he’s such a great cellist.


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