Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring premiered in Australia in August 1946, with Eugene Goossens and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra putting on a “magnificent performance.” Goossens told the audience “that only his complete confidence in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra had induced him to entrust them with the score.”

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Rite of SpringLotte Betts-Dean, Sir Andrew Davis, Paul Groves and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Photo © Laura Manariti

The Melbourne premiere of August 1952 was less successful. “Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring upset a number of people,” reported one newspaper. “Some got up and walked out. Others protested to the Australian Broadcasting Commission, which had arranged the concert. Some said Stravinsky’s music had been ugly. Others said it had been boring, incomprehensible, or simply not music.”

It was a strange reaction – perhaps the citizens of Melbourne thought themselves more Parisian than their northern counterparts – because Stravinsky’s masterpiece was, by the 1950s, one of the most popular orchestral works in the world.

Walt Disney’s revolutionary Fantasia had arrived in Australia a decade before the Melbourne premiere, and featured the Rite of Spring prominently in its program. One journalist who asked filmgoers about their favourite sequences in Fantasia said he “particularly noticed that plenty of ordinary people had liked the Rite of Spring, both spectacle and music … To anybody who saw Fantasia a few times and has any memory, the scream of Stravinsky’s flutes and the sudden outcrop of huge mountain ranges are inseparably one experience forever more.” By 1963 the Australian Women’s Weekly was recommending the Rite of Spring to readers as “one of the most exciting musical works ever written.”

While the Rite of Spring is well known and now, despite some early detractors, well loved, its accompaniment on the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Stravinsky double bill has been relatively neglected. Perséphone is something of an oddity, somewhere between a tone-poem, cantata, and a ballet. Formally, it is a “melodrama”, or a spoken drama over musical accompaniment. Perhaps the last time Australia audiences were given a performance of Perséphone was in May 1966, when the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Dean Dixon presented two concerts at the Sydney Town Hall. It seems only the French-language newspaper Le Courrier Australien reported on the event.

On Thursday night, an appreciative Melbourne audience was treated to the first Australia performance of Perséphone in over half a century, which made a sensible pairing with the always popular Rite of Spring. André Gide’s texts tells the ancient story of Perséphone’s journey to the Underworld and her subsequent rebirth. Tenor Paul Groves, as the priest Eumophalus, was joined by another 180 voices on stage: the MSO Chorus, along with the Australian Girls Choir and the National Boys Choir. The mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean was compelling as spoken-word narrator.

Perséphone – in Gide’s rendering – makes a voluntary departure for Hades out of pity for the lost souls of the underworld and with her she takes away the bounty of spring. Up above, her absence brings the desolation of winter. The real dramatic interest of the work, however, is in Stravinsky’s score, which contains some of the most striking music of the 20th century. By 1934, when the piece premiered in Paris, it was almost too pleasant and too sweet for Stravinsky’s followers and this, in combination with its unusual hybrid form, has perhaps contributed to its relative obscurity.

It is a beautiful but complex piece, and the MSO and its choristers under Sir Andrew Davis performed admirably. There is some stunning writing for brass and woodwinds throughout the work, and Stravinsky’s lyrical scoring is transcendent, often liturgical. As Goossens entrusted his Sydney orchestral players with the score to the Rite of Spring in 1946, Sir Andrew was right to place this unfairly neglected masterpiece in the hands of his MSO.

Perséphone’s voluntary sacrifice to Hades, and the bringing of desolate winter on Earth, provided a fascinating conceptual segue to the forced pagan sacrifice of a virgin who dances herself to death to please the gods amidst, as Stravinsky described it, “the mystery and great surge of creative power of Spring.”

The Rite of Spring remains at points startlingly modern, even if moments that might have once shocked are now simply enthralling. Much of what made the work so novel in 1913 has by now been subsumed into the orchestral language spoken in concert halls, cinemas, and even in video games. One early reviewer in Sydney described its “bold and savage patterns of rhythm; the abrupt changes of mood; the sudden primeval outburst of percussion; the primitive persistence of drum-beats; the weird and startling combinations of tone.” All of these, he said, “made an immense effect.”

The MSO has performed Stravinsky’s most famous work innumerable times, most recently about seven months ago with Markus Stenz. The last time I saw it was over a decade ago at the Robert Blackwood Hall. Regardless of who holds the baton, or of the venue, the MSO always seems to have a particularly good time playing it. It is hard not to enjoy thunderous volleys from their brass section and the percussionists behind them, or the movement of massive forces in the strings. As with Perséphone and indeed throughout Stravinsky’s body of work, there is also a great deal of mesmerising woodwind music.

The Rite of Spring deservedly remains a staple of MSO programming, and we can only hope that Perséphone might someday be just as well known.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performs The Rite of Spring again on July 20 at 2pm


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