From Messiaen and Boulez to Reich and Zappa, no musician after Stravinsky could fail to be influenced by his revolutionary score.

And so music could never be the same again… The morning after the premiere before, every musician in Paris woke up with The Rite of Spring pulsating through their being. And there were no exceptions. Bassoonists were gripped by vertigo. It was reported in the local Paris press that one such bassoon practitioner, during his orchestra’s accompaniment of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, started twitching frantically before pitching every note three octaves higher than written. Meanwhile, string players were forbidden from articulating melodic lines with up-bows by French government decree: each note now had to be pounced on with a punky down-bow. In a culture once proud of its chanson tradition, timpanists were the new stars. All around Montmartre, and later migrating to the provinces, nightclubs opened where adoring crowds could assemble to witness the stick-tastic spectacle of timpanists recreating their moves from The Rite; two shows each night, three on Saturdays. And, to seal the deal in this post-Rite of Spring environment, a committee of composers was convened to rewrite (or as Poulenc wryly put it, ‘re-Rite’) every pre-existing piece of music after the image of Stravinsky’s ballet. And there were no exceptions. Milhaud was proud to unveil his bitonal reharmonisations of theSchubert piano sonatas. Georges Auric was tasked with rebarring the Beethoven symphonies, threading alternating bars of 5/16 and 3/8 through the Eroica and turning the Choral Symphony’s Turkish march into a rhythmically asymmetrical, pagan stampede. And all existing copies of Schubert sonatas and Beethoven symphonies were then discreetly pulped. And there were no exceptions. And no one minded.

And anyone reading the more sensationalist histories about the aftershock of the scandal could be forgiven for believing that that’s how it was – that the course of music history had been transformed in an instant: The Rite as modern music’s Pearl Harbor. But music doesn’t operate like that. The message takes time to seed, to blossom and be understood. Not that we should begrudge classical-music mythology the thrills and sonic spills of The Rite of Spring’s premiere. If only more newly written music could incite audiences to hurl objects into orchestras. If only audiences today cared enough about new music to allow themselves to be provoked in that way. But here’s the truth: a few days after its premiere, The Rite’s first Paris run was a sell-out. The score was acknowledged as a work of unheralded genius, and a feeding frenzy of debate and analysis followed wherever it went – ballet stage or concert hall. Because it was no 4’33” conceptual riddle, nor was anybody required to feel their way towards processing material on an entirely new level of consciousness like that apogee of literary modernism James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Audiences seemed to grasp and respect the expressive logic of why Stravinsky had needed to take musical language back to first base. Ulysses is still considered “difficult”, but The Rite was quickly sucked into the mainstream. Bernard Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s Psycho and John Williams’s schlock-horror Jaws motif could never have existed without it. In Fantasia – Disney’s 1940 animated film choreographed to classical music – The Rite, albeit in a precised Mickey Mouse reorchestration, sat seamlessly alongside Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Mussorgsky’s A Night on the Bare Mountain as a culturally entrenched “classic” in a way that, for argument’s sake, music by the more awkward squad Schoenberg could not. To the man on the street, Stravinsky personified new-music exotica. But such dalliances with the mainstream actually tell us little about how The Rite came to leave its indelible imprint on the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic thinking of the music that came after it – on Messiaen and Varèse; Xenakis and Boulez; Andriessen and Reich; Charlie Parker and Frank Zappa.

Carl Orff (left) and Aaron Copland
So how did Stravinsky’s ballet charm the mainstream while becoming the most influential and analysed score of the 20th century? As a first case study I give you Aaron Copland, who, despite coming of age in Brooklyn during the first two decades of the 20th century, found a workable way of incorporating folklore into his music through his experience of Stravinsky, and of The Rite of Spring in particular. In 1921, Copland relocated to France. He had enrolled at the American Music School in Fontainebleau, where his teacher was Nadia Boulanger, Stravinsky’s close friend and confidante. If The Rite (and its precursors The Firebird and Petrushka) were motivated by a desire to understand more about the folk origins of the Russian people, Copland’s trilogy of classic ballets applied this Stravinskian concept of “invented” folklore to his American situation. Written in 1934, Hear Ye! Hear Ye! attempted to “do” black jazz, but ended up linking together idiomatic clichés. But Billy the KidRodeo and Appalachian Spring implanted folk sources at a deep structural level, Copland’s trademark open-fifth prairie sound framing the space and invoking an imagined landscape, part real and part fantasy, every bit as powerfully as The Rite’s curtain-raising bassoon solo.
Even at its most Stravinskian – the finale of Copland’s Piano Concerto is practically traced over The Rite’s “Sacrificial Dance”; the lopsided rhythmic impetus of El salón México is The Rite going olé in a sombrero – there’s a liberated (and liberating) sense of Stravinsky distilled but never imitated. Adding to the Copland–Stravinsky intrigue is the little-discussed aside that Stravinsky managed to inspire not only these nationalist scores, but also modernist pieces like Copland’s stentorian 1930 Piano Variations, a vein he revived during the 1960s as his compositional career was drawing to a close with the orchestral works Connotations and Inscape. The gestural reliance that the Piano Concerto and El salón México have on The Rite – an overlay of polyrhythmic ideas, the anti-groove of alternating time signatures – is clear enough, technical hooks that also audibly filtered into the splintering motor rhythms of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Seventh Piano Sonata. But if the trail might feel like it’s running cold with Copland’s late modernist pieces, consider this. Connotations and Inscape are parched, aloof, sonically brittle orchestral rituals. In Copland’s early nationalist ballets, melodic motifs were developed by way of subtle rhythmic and harmonic shifts of emphasis, a technique with obvious pedigree in The Rite. The late modernist works retain this basic compositional technique, the stylistic differential coming from the unstable harmonic underpinning and the disorientating chromatic harmony. Stravinsky ran through Copland’s DNA. Aaron couldn’t shake off Igor, and never wanted to.
Carl Orff, case study number two, is the exemplar par excellence of what can go wrong when a composer cherry-picks from the surface of The Rite without engaging sincerely with Stravinsky’s underlying aesthetic. Can that much-loved cantata Carmina burana – Orff’s 1936 celebration of vainglorious youth culture that found sympathy with the Nazi regime and has latterly been used to open a certain Saturday night television pop talent show – really be said to have “gone wrong”? Well, one man’s innocent spectacle is another’s blemished bombast, and separating the notes on the page from the surrounding ideology is always a challenge when discussing Orff’s uncertain legacy. But where Copland embellished and grew Stravinsky’s influence, there are enough explicitly musical reasons to suggest that Orff simply exploited it. Musical “primitivism” is a troubling and disingenuous concept when applied, as it is habitually, to The Rite of Spring. Writing music that sounded so feral and untamed required a level of orchestral fastidiousness and harmonic nerves of steel that pushed Stravinsky to his limit.
The Rite portrays a state of primitivism. But Carmina burana’s heavy-handed orchestration and gallery-playing harmonic shock tactics really are crude and basic. Compositionally, the music does away with counterpoint; it marches through time by way of directional blocks that are repeated rather than developed. Orff reduces his harmonic palette to thirds, fifths, unisons and octaves, the base primary colours of harmony. Stravinskian bitonality is downgraded to the level of “wrong note” harmony: effect, never function. Rite-like motor rhythms fuel Orff’s anthemic emotional manipulation. A music of integrity with no counterpoint and harmonised in octaves, thirds and fifths might easily exist – but this isn’t it. Put Orff’s desire to deny the complexity of modern life into its historical context, and Carmina burana hardly comes up smelling of roses. Roger Reynolds, the West Coast American composer whose ritualistic scores have often been placed in a lineage that reaches back to Varèse and Xenakis, and therefore to Stravinsky, tells me he hears three aspects within The Rite that have been most influential: “primal evocation, rhythmic angularity, and what sometimes feel like sonic ‘walls’ – majestic blocks of complex sonority suggestive of an unknown world”. As he explains: “The feature most referenced is, of course, the diabolical rhythmic mayhem of the ‘Danse sacrale’. If one considers its impact even upon Varèse’s Arcana, one can hear both the rhythmic savagery, and this sense of primal evocation – in fact, the evocative voice of the conjuror became an almost inevitable opening gambit for Varèse.”
Working towards specifics, what features of The Rite have impacted most deeply on Reynolds’s own work? “It is the two non-rhythmic features of The Rite that impressed me most strongly,” he explains, “the ways in which Stravinsky summons into being musical ‘spaces’ hitherto unimagined. The opening wailing of the bassoon spirals out to other sections of the orchestra immersing us in the ‘place’ in which the ceremony to follow will occur. But there are several other points in the work when other, unanticipated spaces – a new and previously unknown musical viscosity – fills the air, placing the dancers and us in a metaphorical space that no other music had, or has since.” Reynolds’s neat little analysis rhymes with words of Stravinsky’s own from his 1962 book of conversations with Robert Craft, Expositions and Developments. “A new piece of music is a new reality,” he claimed, which suggested that The Rite could be an open invitation to subsequent composers to imagine equally fantastical fresh musical terrain, which, if true, lands us inside the mother of all paradoxes. Although Stravinsky continued to feed off The Rite’s sound world and compositional techniques for a few more years – Three Pieces for String QuartetThe Soldier’s Tale and Les noces are all identifiably “Riteian”) – by the time of Pulcinella and Symphonies of Wind Instruments in 1920, new compositional concerns were in the ascendant that would ultimately lead him towards the dainty neo-classicism of the Serenade in A and Dumbarton Oaks.
There was no future in reducing The Rite’s vocabulary to a catalogue ofeffects and apply-when-ready compositional tricks; Stravinsky knew the dangers. In 1913, The Rite had marked a clean break from the Austro-German tradition, but just as Stravinsky was moving his language on again, Rite of Spring-isms became the new orthodoxy. Just think of all those second-tier French divertimentos with cute bitonal first movements; just think of all those American symphonic scherzos (1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-BAM!). And the problem boils down to harmony. That most famous quote of all from Stravinsky’s autobiography – “music is powerless to express anything”, an endlessly problematic and misunderstood phrase – is very much the point. The distinction Stravinsky made between his aesthetic and more mimetic modes of expression was that his music definitely did stand on ceremony. Stylised ceremony, Stravinsky thought, reconnected us with universal, fundamental truths in a way that personalised expression could not. But here’s the paradox: music that consciously borrowed surface gestures from The Rite in an effort to sound “modern” repurposed them as a representational image. Stravinsky’s radical, fascinating rhythm and his wacko orchestration – the bassoon solo, the bumping and grinding percussion, the orchestral thumps – are the work’s headlining innovations, but a deeper mystery lies at The Rite’s core. Although Stravinsky regularly played fast and loose with the truth, by common agreement there are at least nine melodic motifs within The Rite that can be traced directly back to a folk source.
One of these motifs was catchy enough for Charlie Parker to drop it into the solo of his 1950 record Repetition, but it’s Stravinsky’s harmony that lends these melodic shards their overarching power – what keeps The Rite turning on its enigmatic axis is the Yin–Yang tension between the direct sting of Stravinsky’s melodic material and his illusive chromatic side-stepping harmony.
Nowhere has the influence been more pronounced than in Holland, where at least two generations of composers have eagerly followed the senior Dutch composer Louis Andriessen in writing music that spills out of The Rite’s rhythmic push and muscular orchestration. Listening to Andriessen’s 1976 De staat is like being locked inside The Rite’s inner mechanisms; but as far as the Dutch new-music scene is concerned, there are those who think that this Stravinsky fixation has led to a national school where one composer sounds interchangeable with another a scene every bit as ideologically narrow as the serialism it sought to replace. Xenakis’s Eonta, Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars, Reich’s Drumming, Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts and Ligeti’s Lontano are all children of Stravinsky’s rhythmic ideas, original ideas about harmony applied. As today’s modern composition scene becomes increasingly fragmentary, traces of The Rite become secreted within a fabric of other influences. Michael Gordon’s 2002 Decasia added microtonal inflections to a broadly Rite-thinking rhythmic palette – another way to refresh the harmonic thinking. Whether Xenakis or Gordon, every composer engaging with The Rite needs to get excited about the possibility that music could never be the same again.