Stravinsky’s Rite

When was the first time you realized you liked cheese? You’ve always liked it? Spinach, then; liver; avocados; offal; brussel sprouts? (Fair enough, you still don’t like those.) Chances are, however, that a liking for one or all of these has come over time.

Mozart, Haydn -purists, forgive me- are the chips of classical music. Nobody ever popped a chip into their mouth, chewed it over, weighed it all up, and after a lengthy period of deliberation concluded ‘Hmm, quite like that, I suppose.’ It’s the same with Mozart and Haydn: you can’t help but love ’em.

Other foods, composers, creep into our senses with age and a maturity to experiment. It is the abandonment of an almost congenital prejudice: Mozart, chips, sure. Stravinsky, kidneys, nah, just don’t like the sound of it. So without any rationale, which you simultaneously acknowledge, you then decide you’re not going to even try it.

Image result for stravinsky rite of spring

You know what’s coming now, don’t you. In my efforts to persuade new listeners that there will always be something to like in classical music, I have tended to err on the safe: melody has been at the heart of every post thus far.

Not today.

Today I’m going to challenge your ears with something altogether less comfortable. Brace yourself for an assault of dissonance and fury. Don’t you dare quit yet. My guess is that if you are new to classical music, and especially if you are young, this can only excite you.

Today it’s not about a tune. It’s about rhythm alone, and how multiple changes of musical time signatures can combine to leave you almost scared, bewildered, shocked.

(Rhythm can exist on its own, by the way. A melody, however, cannot; it depends on rhythm to give the tune its meaning: try singing Elgar’s Nimrod, giving equal time to each note and you will quickly land up with the blandest collection of notes.)

I have written about Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) before, but in the context of his delightful Romance from The Gadfly. Now I want you to imagine yourself in the Théatre des Champs-Elysées on an evening in May 2013.

Without knowing it, your delicate ears are about to be bludgeoned with the most influential and controversial piece of the 20th century. The Rite of Spring, a ballet staged by Sergei Diaghilev and choreographed by the greatest ballet dancer of the early 20th century, Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950), lasted just 35 minutes. But it caused a stir from the moment the curtain went up.

Some have put this uproar down to the choreography, but the music was so alien that its impact can scarcely be surprising. I will not trouble you with the plot here, beyond summarising that it is a ballet which culminates in a chosen maiden dancing herself to death. Nowadays, the music is one of the most performed of all 20th century pieces in the concert hall.

Here is the final part, The Dance of Death. It is outrageous, scandalous, daring, ground-breaking, menacing, deranged, offensive: at its many rehearsals, some of the musicians were having to stifle their laughter in disbelief. But for all that, in its multiple changes of rhythm, drum thumps (requiring two players) it is unquestionably intoxicating, too.

A final thought. Have you ever heard a chef openly admit that he detested a particular food? All of them seem to rave about all food, whatever it is. Pierre Monteux, the conductor on the first night, had no such qualms: he admitted freely that he loathed the piece – but went on to conduct it another 50 times. What an honest professional.

Click on the image below. I have attached the music; not because I expect you to follow it, but by way of demonstrating that I don’t think you need to be a musician to see the chaos on the page. Try and see it through, it’s only a few minutes.

Who knows? In time it may rank alongside a newly acquired taste in food; but if it remains your brussel sprout, at least you will have tried it.


Bach: St Matthew Passion

Tomorrow I make my annual pilgrimage to The Royal Festival Hall for the Bach Choir’s performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

I can’t remember how long I have been doing this. An old friend introduced the piece to me many years ago and for several thereafter the two of us would make it our yearly treat. As the years passed and my eager anticipation for the event grew, others, out of curiosity and observation of how the occasion affected me, have delved into the piece and discovered its spiritual beauty – thereby kicking our little secret into the long grass.

Humph. Parade rained upon.

I wrote about Bach, and this work particular, in April 2017, so click on the link below for some more information about the man and the piece, and another excerpt, not least because there’s not a whole lot I can add to it.

Today I want to share the opening chorus with you. I have deliberately selected a version which fulfils two essentials. First the speed, which here, for me is perfect: taken correctly, it is as if a long train is pulling out of the station, embarking on a lengthy trip; as the voices come in, the train has emerged into the open air and you nestle comfortably into your seat, relishing the indulgence of doing absolutely nothing beyond letting go and immersing yourself fully into the music.

The second essential, facilitating the first, is that there are no visuals here. The Passion, whether you believe it or not, is a story of the highest drama, and this has led some to staging it. I went to one such production a number of years ago and I came away completely unfulfilled. Visuals, staging, just get in the way of the music: they can even distract you enough to take you away from it.

The piece, nearly three hours in length, would always be in my Desert Island Discs lineup. And if I had to select just one, The St Matthew Passion would be it.

In that, I recently discovered, I am in the best possible company: the late Claudio Abbado, one of my favourite conductors, unhesitatingly said the same when he was interviewed for the programme.

Click on the image – and if you can get to a performance in the next couple of weeks, you will start a habit which you will find hard to give up in years to come.

But a good one. Perhaps the best.