Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Right place, right time, right crowd

Anticipating today’s 100th anniversary of the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s “Le sacre du printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”), retrospectives have focused on the great change that this 32-minute ballet score brought to music.

Yes, it was startlingly new. No, it was not the birth of modernism in music. But, it was a birth cry heard throughout the Western world.

Scriabin’s “Poem of Ecstasy,” Debussy’s “La Mer,” Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé,” Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” Richard Strauss’ “Salome” and “Elektra,” all predate “Le sacre.” In rhythmic complexity, harmonic language, employment of new and/or different instrumental timbres and textures, each of those scores is at least as “modern” as Stravinsky’s. (Harmonically, much of Wagner is more advanced.)

Nevertheless, “the impact of [‘Le sacre’] was incalculable,” Nicolas Slonimsky wrote in his “Lectionary of Music.” “[H]ardly a single composer anywhere in the world escaped its powerful influence.”

Why this score above all others?

The premiere of “Le sacre” was the most famous instance of modern music getting a rise out of an audience. Whether the opening-night riot at Paris’ Theatre de Champs Elysees was a spontaneous event or was engineered by Serge Diaghilev, the impresario whose Ballets Russe staged “Le sacre,” has been the subject of conflicting accounts over the years and probably never will be resolved.

Diaghilev, Stravinsky, choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky and conductor Pierre Monteux, all recognized the musical and choreographic provocations in “Le sacre” well before its premiere, Modris Eksteins wrote in “Rites of Spring: the Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age.” “There can be no doubt that a scandale of some sort was both intended and expected.”

Similar intentions and expectations may have preceded Strauss’ operas and Schoenberg’s song cycle. “Salome” and “Elektra,” however, were introduced in Dresden, and “Pierrot Lunaire” in Berlin. Both were centers of music; but they weren’t Paris, which at the time was the epicenter of Western culture.

The Ballets Russe was popular among cultural opinion leaders and maintained close ties with, and generated buzz among, artistic modernists in fields other than music and dance. Among those in the opening-night audience were Ravel, Carl Van Vechten, Gabriele D’Annunzio, André Gide, Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean Cocteau.

“Le sacre” was not the only 20th-century score to benefit from timing, location and cachet.

George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is another famous example. It was not the first piece of art-music to be influenced by jazz – Darius Milhaud’s “La création du monde” (“The Creation of the World”), Stravinsky’s “Ragtime” and other jazz-tinged works predate the rhapsody; but its premiere by Gershwin and Paul Whiteman’s jazz orchestra, on Feb. 12, 1924 at Aeolian Hall in New York, was, like “Le sacre,” a keenly anticipated event drawing prominent musicians, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, John Philip Sousa, Willem Mengelberg, Fritz Kreisler, Moritz Rosenthal, Mary Garden and Leopold Stokowski.

An art work becomes influential not just because of artistic merit, especially not at first. Being introduced in the right place at the right time to the right people can be even more important.

What made “Le sacre” such an influential work – violent energy, rhythmic complexity, deceptively austere harmonic language, reference to ancient or folk cultures – almost surely would have become the lingua franca of modern music with or without this score. The uneasy Zeitgeist of the early 20th century, the fascination with “primitive” folk and non-Western art and the rise of viscerally expressive styles such as jazz and tango pointed music in the direction that Stravinsky took in “Le sacre.”

But would another composer have distilled the prevailing mood and new musical trends as effectively as Stravinsky, and would the musical world have responded as it did to “Le sacre?”