not in our stars, but in ourselves
It is, allegedly, the first day of spring. Increasing daylight and a handful of days with temperatures over the freezing mark mean that there’s not quite as much snow on the ground as there was a few weeks ago – but there is still LOTS of snow, and it’s still cold, and I begin to doubt that it will ever get any less terrible than this.
No, I know, it will. I’m just weary of winter, as I always am.
Anyway, to try to direct my thoughts in a slightly more focused way (or at least to get them to stop focusing on the combination of continuing cold and aching back), I’ve dedicated today to The Rite of Spring. A long time ago, I wrote about Riot at the Rite, a somewhat silly movie with the best recreation of the original sets/costumes/choreography I’ve ever seen, but for those of you who’ve forgotten, or who don’t care, or who’ve joined me only recently, here’s the gist: on May 29th, 1913, the Ballets Russes premiered The Rite of Spring. In 1909, the company had taken Paris by storm with its gorgeous presentations of a highly exoticized Russia. Serge Diaghilev, the ballet’s impresario, knew that European audiences viewed Russia as a mysterious land of dark woods and strange folk tales, and he gave the Parisians exactly what they wanted to see. Sumptuous sets and costumes by the likes of Léon Bakst and Alexandre Benois, choreography by Michel Fokine and Léonide Massine, beloved ballet favorites by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Diaghilev wanted to try something more twentieth-century, so he commissioned works from Igor Stravinsky. First came The Firebird (1910), then Petrushka (1911), and then The Rite of Spring. Diaghilev asked his star dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, to choreograph the ballet. Where Stravinsky’s score finds inspiration in violent rhythms and clashing melodies, Nijinsky’s choreography emphasizes the weight of the dancers’ bodies. As if that weren’t all likely to offend on its own, there’s also the subject matter: in pagan Russia, a tribe performs a frenzied rite to welcome the spring, and selects a virgin sacrifice to beg for nature’s mercy. The crowd literally went wild (something that didn’t exactly upset Diaghilev, who belonged to the any-publicity-is-good-publicity school of thought).
Anyway, watch this:
I’m not a music scholar, nor even a ballet scholar, so I can only speak about this as an enthusiast – not as an expert. In short, it is the most terrifying piece of music I’ve ever heard. From the ominously soft Introduction, with its burbling oboes and clarinets giving way to ostinati (as if to say, “go back now, go back”); to the aggressive stomping rhythm and barely controlled frenzy of the so-called “Augurs of Spring”; to the apparently cataclysmic religious devotion of various rituals and adorations; to the wild finish of the first act: with different instruments in different time signatures clashing against each other, with panic rising into chaos, with a brief moment of quiet before the music gives the distinct feeling of representing floodgates thrown open, with the music unrelenting in its force and fury until – like a tank that goes over the edge of a cliff – it just stops. And that’s just the first act. The second act – the Sacrifice – begins almost sweetly. Strings mimic the round of the young girls, dancing in a circle. An initial moment of discord when one of the girls slips and falls. The round resumes for a moment – and then she slips again. The music rises to a fevered accusation, and then (as a timpani player put it on Michael Tilson Thomas’s Keeping Score), the eleven most terrifying drum beats in all of music, as if to say “DEATH DEATH DEATH DEATH DEATH DEATH DEATH DEATH DEATH DEATH DEATH.” Real light-hearted stuff. The sacrificial victim has been chosen, and the tribe closes in on her from all sides. She begins her dance – a violent, furious, desperate dance with every instrument playing at full volume, every measure a certain step towards doom. I read somewhere (and I can’t remember where) that the sheer bellicosity of the Sacrificial Dance seemed to presage the unprecedented violence of World War I – which would begin about a year after The Rite of Spring premiered.
You get the idea. It is, in Rust Cohle’s words, heavy shit.
As you may be able to tell, despite the fact that it does indeed scare me to death every time, I love it. I can’t listen to it if I’m in a particularly bad state of mind – because it exacerbates all the worst thoughts and feelings I’m carrying around with me – but I have rather internalized it. And today, I’ve been listening to it more or less on repeat. Different conductors, different orchestras, but the same terrifying piece. I mean, what can I say? I relate to it. I relate to the utter hopelessness of trying to strike an impossible bargain with the cold, indifferent earth (or with god, or with whomever). I relate to the fury of nature expressed through the music. I relate to the Chosen Victim, who’s chosen because she slips and falls, and who gets to kill herself by dancing until her back breaks (!!!) or her heart explodes or something. What a way to go.
I gravitate towards The Rite of Spring when it’s seasonally appropriate, for that very reason, but for another reason too: after carrying around all that fury and hopelessness and clumsiness all winter, I want it all out of my system by spring. As uncooperative as the weather around here may be, I intend to move into springtime proper with a much lighter head and heart, and to leave all that anger behind. At least, until next year.