Friday, May 31, 2013

800 Words: It's Finally Time to Understand The Rite

Here it is, so far, The Rite of Spring’s ultimate performance. The opening gala of Disney Hall, the first and thus far greatest monument to classical music in its 21st century guise. An architectural hymn to Esa-Pekka Salonen’s LA Philharmonic in which The Rite of Spring trumps Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as the centerpiece of the classical canon.

I’m also tempted to say that this performance at Disney Hall is not only the greatest performance I’ve ever heard of the Rite of Spring, I’m tempted to say that this is the first adequate performance. I have never been so electrified or terrified by an orchestra’s virtuosity as I have by this performance, but surely there is a performance of this music to be heard that is just as virtuosic and brutal, but much more lyrical, much more human, much more in keeping with the piece’s original conductors’ conceptions (Monteux, Ansermet, Stravinsky himself) but with far better orchestral playing. This is a Rite of Spring made from steel, the Rite which inflamed Prokofiev’s imagination - it gives us the dehumanization of the 20th century in sound, but it does not give any of the vernal bloom, hopefully the vernal bloom of the 21st century, which the Rite proposes. A few years ago, I watched Gustavo Dudamel rehearse the (then) Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in this piece at the Kennedy Center - it was the greatest live performance I ever hope to hear of The Rite of Spring in my lifetime, and yet the conception they gave was as inadequate as any other. And yet through Dudamel’s too fast tempos and the orchestra’s unwillingness to play with any individuality in the quiet passages, you still found yourself embraced in enthusiastic exuberance. The virtuosity on hand may not have had Salonen’s LA players’ mastery, but they did offer a rough-hewn joy which the LA players sound as though they don’t know exists.

It’s taken 100 years, but orchestras can finally play this music, and listeners can view The Rite of Spring on its own terms. In the 2000’s, it’s finally possible view the entire history of music thus far through the Rite of Spring’s prism. Finally, we know a little bit about what this music means.

For a hundred years, The Rite of Spring has been the END OF MUSIC. Wagner, whose bicentennial was last week, seemed to foretell the end of music, but he was merely John the Baptist to Stravinsky’s Jesus. Wagner destroyed tonal harmony’s reliability, but he did not destroy tonality’s dominance. It was only with Stravinsky that a replacement arrived in tonality’s place, and that replacement was pure, unadulterated rhythm - pickled with chords salty enough to give those unexpected rhythmic punches as much sting as possible. That riot, exactly 100 years and two days ago, was so many different events wrapped into one meta-event that it’s impossible to do justice to its importance, or to accurately portray precisely what happened on May 29th 1913, or to not read into the event all sorts of things which did not happen at this event. In so many ways, the premiere of The Rite of Spring marked the end of classical music’s hold over the larger public, the end of harmony’s dominance over rhythm, the end of musical sophistication’s primacy over musical primitivism, and the end of civilization’s confidence it has greater answers to the questions of the world than its barbarian bretheren. The Rite of Spring’s entrance into the world marked all of those events for precisely what they were, and yet it marked none of them.

The Rite of Spring, much more than either Pierrot Lunaire or 4’33, is the end of Classical Music. Not the music, just the term as an unassailable, universal definition.
Even the greatness of Gustav Mahler has come to universal acceptance, but the canon upon which everyone agrees ends with The Rite of Spring. Everything after The Rite of Spring is still being debated - and not even Stravinsky’s later work escapes such debate. Does music history have a purpose? Must all classical music be at the vanguard of modern and modernist developments to be truly great? Does classical music stand apart from the developments of other musical genres or apiece? There is not a single work post-Rite by a single composer, not a one, whose music is not disputed over ideological debates which are now a century old. With The Rite’s premiere, classical music lost its primacy to world culture. The riot at the Rite emboldened composers everywhere to challenge their public, and as a result, the public deserted the concert hall in droves for a new kind of music that did not make such strenuous demands. And ever since, not enough people have believed in classical music for there to be a universally accepted definition of the term. What can classical music mean when nobody cares what it means?

(The ‘dangerous’ street music which young Stravinsky would have heard when unsupervised.)

When Stravinsky, a highly superstitious Russian Orthodox adherent, claimed that he was merely the ‘vessel’ through which this work passed, he probably meant it in a more spiritual sense. But in a more general sense, he was absolutely right. The Rite of Spring may require far more compositional technique to assemble than a Joplin Rag or a side by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, but Stravinsky was right alongside them in the promotion of rhythm as music’s new engine. But whereas Joplin and Satchmo grew up on the bayous of the American South, and came by their dance rhythms in an entirely naive context, Stravinsky grew up an unhappy upper-class scion of Polish aristocrats whose father was a leading Bass at the Mariinsky Opera in St. Petersburg. Seemingly like all rebellions throughout history, the rebellion of music against harmony was due to a collusion of charismatic people from society’s bottom caste with the disaffected custodians of privilege. All Stravinsky had to do was to be a stenographer and arranger who listened to the folk music of lower social classes, he could then appropriate the music for a sophisticated foreign audience that disguised the music through enough dissonance and rhythmic irregularity that only a veteran Russian music lover could recognize the sources at all. The result, in The Rite of Spring at least, is music which glorifies ‘the people’ as only an aristocrat could - for their lack of individuality, for their primitive urges, for their bloodlust, and for their stupidity. Not for nothing was there a man in the audience of the Rite’s premiere who shouted ‘Colonize Them!’ In many ways, Stravinsky’s music is the very essence of what we now call ‘radical chic’, and is perhaps much closer to the Leninist ideal than anything written in the Soviet Union.

And in a sense, Stravinsky was absolutely right to glamorize these ‘unsophisticated people,’ and his interest in the music of lower social classes - however condescending - was a real interest which generated real interest for their music in his listeners. After The Rite of Spring, many composers felt as though it was their duty as people of money and privilege to use their advantageous position to shock their public - and thus alienated their usually privileged public just as much. This public, feeling as though the aristocratic confines of the concert hall were no longer safe for them, had to venture into more populist havens to feel the solace and reward that they used to rely upon their own set for. And thus, they began to patronize the music of the lower classes - lower classes whose music continually inspired Stravinsky throughout his career. And because concert hall patrons then became patrons of the music hall, the vaudeville house, the jazz club and bar, and eventually the rock club and festival and the hip hop club, their attention was focused upon a new and different kind of music made by people whose life experiences were completely different from theirs. And thus, the experiences of the lower class became part of the upper class experience, and vice-versa. Classical composers began to appreciate popular music, not as soil to be pilfered, but as something deserving of true respect in its own right and understood on its own terms. Meanwhile popular musicians began to appreciate classical music, not as something forbidding and incomprehensible, but as something worth studying - and that in turn made their music more technically sophisticated. And the audiences of both were able to appreciate each to each - a mid-century middle class family of open mind could appreciate Beethoven, Basie, and The Beatles with equal passion - and it was Stravinsky which made this bridge possible. So therefore, perhaps Stravinsky’s ballet is not only more totalitarian than any music work written in the 20th century, but also more democratic.

So yes, The Rite of Spring meant all these things, and yet it meant none of them.

But in order to talk about what the Rite means, you ultimately have to talk about its performances. When I look at Stravinsky’s score, when I listen to the early recordings, I hear a different performance in my head than the one which Esa-Pekka Salonen gave - one more balletic, more apiece with Stravinsky’s other music, more suffused with Mendelssohnian lightness (the Mendelssohn piano concerto was, after all, the only piano concerto Stravinsky learned well enough to play in public). We have now reached a point when The Rite holds no terrors, and it is directly correlated with some people now viewing it as the most ‘important’ piece of music in music history. If this music means that much, then some people will master it and play it in such a way that its mastery is fully demonstrated. What we hear in the Salonen performance is the ultimate masterly performance of the Rite of Spring, and it has all the terror within it which that implies. What we hear is the full destructive power of the Rite unleashed upon an audience that waited nearly a hundred years to experience it in full. What we don’t hear is the work’s incredible life-giving side.

(Pierre Monteux conducted the premiere in 1913. This is from exactly fifty years from then, and exactly fifty years from now - with the London Symphony, when he gave the 50th anniversary concert at the age of 88. Even the formidable LSO couldn’t come close to mastering the work, but to this day, no one - not even Stravinsky himself - conducted The Rite of Spring more perceptively. Below is a better performance by him, but even the Boston Symphony can't quite handle it...)

When I picture my own ideal performance of the Rite, The winds of the introduction would be pellucidly clear, the tempo and dynamics in the Augers of Spring would be held back so that the buildup can be more meaningful, and the music can positively explode with virtuosity when we get to the Ritual Abduction. The Spring Rounds would be understatedly elegant and not undanceably slow, and the polyrhythms of the Ritual of the Rival Tribes, the Procession of the Sage, and the Dance of the Earth would be as clear as a bell, neither with the elephantine heaviness of the old slow performances, nor with the vulgar ‘con blasto’ approach done at tempos too quick for you to hear which notes you’re missing. The opening of the second movement would be done a shade slower and many times softer than is today’s norm, but with a romantic flexibility one generally doesn’t associate with Stravinsky (but is there in the score for all to see) that during the dances of the young girls would at times veer into faster than today’s norm as well - but nevertheless, the feeling of the beginning would be fundamentally slow and langourous, until we get to the Glorification and Naming of the Chosen One - where the work arrives at it’s true explosion - and the full power of the orchestra is finally unleashed - twenty minutes into the work’s roughly 30 minute duration - with a tempo which most orchestras would find impossibly fast and playing out with as much loud ugliness as orchestras generally distribute evenly throughout the work and with NO SLOWDOWN FOR THE EVOCATION OF THE ANCESTORS!  But once we come to the Ritual Action of the Ancestors, the tempo is slowed down to a crawl for the most langourous, most sensually chromatic, most feral, and yes - most terrifying - action you can get. And then, finally, for the Sacrificial Dance - take the brakes off, and go for Stravinsky’s original speed - once pronounced unplayable, but now easily within the purview of semi-professional orchestras. How do we know this, because believe it or not, perhaps the performance which comes closest to giving us this tempo, and all all the rest of what I list above, is the semi-professional Boston Philharmonic, conducted by Benjamin Zander. But there is no way that the Boston Philharmonic can be any more up to all the demands than the greatest orchestras of the 1930’s.

But there’s not a single performance of The Rite of Spring which gives you all of that, or even the majority. Perhaps the earliest conductors of the score understood all that, but none of them had an orchestra to live up to their demands - and often had to slow the tempo of the faster sections so that their orchestras had a fighting chance. Later conductors like Ancerl, Markevitch, Dorati, Davis, Ormandy, Solti, and Abbado could give us good approximations of the score that told you ‘some’ of the story, but none of them could give us the whole thing. Perhaps some truly perceptive musicians, like Bernstein and Boulez, could give you a little more than ‘some.’ and none of them, not even Boulez, could consistently drill an orchestra to the point that the score could be fully mastered. It’s only in our day, with supervirtuoso orchestras under super-technician conductors like Chailly, Fischer, and Jansons that orchestras sound like they’re finally getting the Rite into their bloodstream. When a conductor is truly inspiring in our day, like Gergiev, or Rattle, or Michael Tilson Thomas, the results can still be as exciting (and as dirty) as ever before. But inevitably, the more masterful the orchestra sounds, the more capacity there is to make The Rite of Spring sound dull, no longer like the world-incinerating threat it always has but just another kid-glove masterwork. We still await a conductor who can give us all that technical mastery combined with all that drama suffused with all that lightness (Vladimir Jurowski? Daniel Harding?...)

Nietzsche used to speak of how music can only express the sentiments of bygone eras - by the time Beethoven expressed the spirit of enlightenment in music, or Mozart the Rococo Era, or Bach the protestantism of Martin Luther, the spirit of that time had vanished completely. But what era does Stravinsky express? Every piece of music he wrote seems to express the spirit of a different time and place. And in the case of The Rite of Spring, it expresses an era so long dead that it has no recorded history. If anything, Stravinsky is a composer who - like most great composers, only moreso - expressed bits and pieces of the future, and no piece of music in the twentieth century revealed that future more strikingly than The Rite of Spring. The Rite of Spring is encoded onto the DNA of jazz as no other classical work could ever be. The Entertainer and The Potato Head Blues are the lush green valley out of which jazz grows, but The Rite of Spring is the mountaintop to which all popular musicians with artistic ambition aspire to climb. Ever since Joplin and Satchmo, Jazz moved ever closer to the sophisticated tonal dissonances of its chords and the asymmetrical jabs of its rhythms - present for all forms of popular music like a holy grail to which they can aspire for the sophistication that will not only move the ‘popular musical tradition’ forward into territory unknown, but also assimilate other genres to the classical tradition, so that perhaps they can become one and the same. Several famous jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman,, Alice Coltrane, Hubert Laws, and Charlie Parker have all directly summoned The Rite’s ghost in their music making. How long is it before rock, its energy exhausted a generation from now as jazz’s energy is exhausted in ours, turns to classical music just as frequently as Jazz does today, and inevitably hits upon The Rite of Spring? Leonard Bernstein compared The Rite of Spring to Bebop, Gustavo Dudamel calls it Heavy Metal. Because ultimately, what The Rite of Spring expresses is not the past, it's the future.

The Rite of Spring may be about the inevitability of spring returning, but it provided classical music with a century-long winter (thus far). It did nothing less than destroy classical music as we knew it, and thanks to performers like Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, we have finally come to terms with its destructive force. However, we still haven’t come to terms with its life-force. The Rite of Spring is about the entire life-cycle, life as well as death, sex as well as murder. No performers have come along yet who unleashed the expressive potential of The Rite of Spring in its entirety, but now we know what that entirety will look like. And such a performance can only come when popular genres meet again with classical genres. The Rite is the beacon by which ‘popular’ genres know that they are growing. One day, there will come a musician who expresses something with tonal dissonance and asymmetrical rhythm even beyond The Rite of Spring, and such a work will illuminate the lighter half of even this forbidding masterpiece. it will contain polyrhythms and polytonalities beyond the Rite of Spring's thorniest passages, but where the Rite of Spring was forbidding and suffused with 'otherness', this work would be suffused with Mozartian (Armstrongian?) light, and Beethoven (Beatlesesque?) humanity. And such a work would then illuminate the life-giving side of The Rite of Spring, which would no longer be a forbidding monster in its wake, but an uplifting, joyous celebration of life and death in permanent cycle. What now seems so primitive, dark, and 'other' in The Rite of Spring is in fact the first stage in which a new civilization gains its humanity and speaks with its long muted voice - a voice which has grown in eloquence every year since. When the day comes that world music assembles a canon as important to world history as the 'classical' canon, the aspirations of music will be universal again.

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