Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English


Russian music was also important at start of the 20th century. Scriabin (1872-1915), a declared visionary, offered a post-Wagnerian chromatic mysticism and an exotic modality. He used fourths for an “intensified, dissonant ‘impressionistic’ chromaticism” (Salzman 28).

More important, though, was Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), who settled in the West. The early part of his career was aligned with “Primitivism,” which in painting was manifested in the works of the Fauvists (fauves = wild beasts). In music, primitivism indicates an elevation of rhythm to a place of prominence, and the best early example of this movement is Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, completed in 1912. The work breaks with old rhythm-phrase accent structures, favoring violent asymmetrical rhythmic accents and shifting patterns. This almost determines the rest of the piece: “‘chords’ and melodic bits appear as individual static objects” (Salzman 29). The work is one of high artifice: everything is asserted, nothing falls into place naturally or by expectation. “Disassociated ideas appear as artifacts, set into block structures built up in layers” (Salzman 29). Volatile explosive musical energies obliterate any sense of motion directed by counterpoint and line. “Le Sacre is a work that takes shape, not through the extension of line and counterpoint, but through the juxtaposition of static levels of sound and statement, dividing up and punctuating psychological time with rhythm and accent, statement and articulation” (Salzman 30). The orchestral outbursts are unpredictable during the eighth note unit pulse. The rhythm is metronomic but the measures and groupings change. The piece is about primitivism, and is a superb example of “primitivism,” but of course is not “primitive” itself, but highly sophisticated and intricate.

The Sacring of Spring, always called The Rite of Spring except by my stickler of a Vassar College music professor, consists of two tableaux: 1) Adoration of the Earth, adolescents dance; 2) clash, and Sacrifice of a Maiden. Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring.
Stravinsky sought to portray an ancient Slavonic spring ritual through the dances of youths and maidens mimicking courtship, abduction, rivalry, and sacrifice in a passionate ancestral ceremonial of earthly delight and celestial promise. Stravinsky remembered that he had “imagined a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to appease the God of Spring,” thereby reenacting profoundly atavistic folk propitations of an unfathomable Nature’s perpetual cycles.

In 1913 came the succès de scandale of the first performance: a minor riot. According to one eye-witness, the audience, driven berserk by Nijinsky’s “perverse” choreography, raged uncontrollably over what it felt a blasphemous effort to destroy music. Nijinsky, straddling and offstage chair, continuously bellowed out (“like a coxswain,” Stravinsky recalled) a barrage of counts to maintain the dancers’ metrical synchronization, while the impressario Diaghilev, fearing public panic, ordered electricians to turn the houselights on and off to stop the noise. Jean Cocteau noted that Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and Nijinsky, huddled together in the Bois de Boulogne during the wee later hours, wept at the debacle.

Stravinsky’s music is known for its rhythmic drive, asymmetrical features, irregular size of groups, displaced accents, and different meters combined. It can be polytonal, and is usually non-developmental. He uses tone centers rather than diatonic and dissonant chord progressions. After 1914 Stravinsky exercised control in size and form; this is called his “Neo-Classical” period.

Works Cited

Bonds, Mark Evan. A History of Music in Western Culture. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Morgan, Robert P., ed. Music and Society: Modern Times. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1993.

Nousiainen, Pasi. “Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky.”http://www.cs.hut.fi/~pno/Music/Stravinsky/. 1997.

Salzman, Eric. Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1974.