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Reflections on the Rite

Welcome to Reflections on the Rite!  If this is your first time visiting, please check out this post for a brief introduction.  


Spring Encounters: Sean Shepherd

Every Monday, Reflections features its Spring Encounters series, where guest composers, performers, choreographers, scholars, and students comment on their personal experiences with The Rite of Spring.  In celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the piece, Reflections will examine the Rite from every angle, and Spring Encounters gives you a glimpse into the impact the work has made on today’s culture.  This week’s post comes courtesy of composer Sean Shepherd.

I get a little possessive over this ballet.  Am I the only composer who does?  Of course not.  But imagine my shock (and don’t worry, it was but one of many) in the mid-1990s when, after years of being kühl enough to be the only adolescent in the great state of Nevada who’d seen and felt the wild pounding of the light and known what it had shown only me, to see in my first week of college that basically everyone who’d put pen to paper in the shape of an eighth-note had heard the gospel, all the way back to Elliott Carter, who was 70 years old on the day I was born.  And they were telling the exact same story that I did!  The preteen years; the corporeal reaction.  First score purchased.  First recording purchased.  Even the killer: it made them think that they might want to be a composer?  All of it.  Well, I can say that it’s never sat quite right that this work of art was not meant solely for my ears (or anyone else’s in particular), and even in that I’m not alone.  Composer group-chat about this piece of music quickly devolves into a lot of “Well, actually,”’s, and “Have you heard…”’s  and “Did you know that…”’s.  If grouping composers into a cohesive community of any kind over any issue is normally like herding cats, a remarkable key of commonality might be our shared experience with this single piece of music, now a century – a century? – old.

Which is what is so totally unfair about it!  It’s not OUR Sacre du Printemps.  It.  Is.  Mine.

I’d even go further.  By now, it is me.  There are 3 pieces that come to mind (Le Sacre, La Mer of Debussy, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé) to which I rarely listen, or seek to attend in live performance.  I realized some time ago that I have a hard time just listening to the music anymore with these pieces, because I’m like that amateur actor that memorized everyone else’s lines along with my own, and I’m mouthing them on stage so very helpfully while they are speaking (ie. while any orchestra is performing), in my mind.  The works themselves are the vessels, the empty coat hangers by which I judge a performance/interpretation of said work.  In other words, like Daedalus, I got a bit too close.  Can you blame me?  On one hand, I truly know* this music (my autopsy will reveal such), and on another, I feel I must escape it.  How can I do what I must (write exciting musics for Very Big Orchestra), and let them leave me be?

*although I will always reserve the right to discover something new or newly revelatory about it.

One experience I’ve had that has informed a lot about a lot for me, and one I unabashedly use to “impress” other composers: I’ve gotten to play it.  1st Contrabassoon.  Yes, that’s first contrabassoon, of the more than one contrabassoon that is required (along with the Wagner tubas and bass trumpet and two tubas) to play the original, most-commonly performed version of Le Sacre.  The huge orchestra is a big part of the effect in performance, with the built-in contrasts – between using just one instrument and using every instrument –employed to a stupendous degree throughout the piece, from the first immemorial tune through the final, all-too-mortal slash.

[Anecdotal sidebar: As a college student, I also studied bassoon seriously, and this performance was with a good college/conservatory orchestra, many of whose members are now playing in professional groups around the world; we had a week of rehearsal, all very standard.  It was the most terrified I’ve ever been in a rehearsal, and I still, more than ten years later, have anxiety dreams about it.  The lists on who was playing what/when went up a few hours before the first rehearsal (beginning of the semester as I recall), and there I was, playing contra.  For the first time in my life.  On The Rite of Spring.  I found a reed, figured out where to put my fingers (it’s not all that clear, even to bassoonists), survived that rehearsal with hands trembling, and, it ended up the first of lots of fun in what I called my “Stravinsky contra semester” which also included Petrushka and Symphony of Psalms – those glorious low Gs and Cs helped me understand a lot about the joys the members of the low brass section feel in Strauss and Mahler.]


Lots of wood.  In a volunteer orchestra Sacre rehearsal in Singapore, the 5 members of the bassoon section.


Nearly any concert stage on which the orchestra for Le Sacre sits is crowded.  Often uncomfortably so.  There are auxiliary instruments lying or propped up everywhere, and two sets of timpani that have to go somewhere near each other.  A large orchestra from exactly one hundred years earlier would have had eight woodwind players maximum, and take or leave many of the brass sections which came to be known as standard over the course of the 19th century.  Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, premiered in 1813, employs woodwinds in doubles, and adds two horns and two trumpets.  Those twelve players have the same amount of physical space on the stage as the 38 players – 20 woodwind, 18 brass – that make up the band which was, of course, originally intended to sit in an orchestra pit.  Now, it is certainly worth noting that the fin-de-siècle taste for massive orchestras neither began nor ended at Le Sacre – Wagner used larger bands before, and Messiaen did long after, and the generally-acknowledged monster of them all is Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, which brings that number of winds and brass up to 50, and then throws in 10 percussionists added to the 2 sets of timpani.  And lots and lots and lots of singers.

The LA Phil fills the stage earlier this year.  Credit: Greg Grudt

Like any room (imagine a bar or a New Year’s Eve party) that starts getting more crowded, the energy rises in rehearsals for big pieces.  So that lowly little bassoon singing so sweetly up high feels just as electric in the first rehearsal as it does in concert.  It gets people’s attention.  If there are any people who spend as much time with this piece as composers, it’s bassoonists.  The opening solo is not technically that difficult (other standard orchestral excerpts are much tougher, starting with Ravel’s piano concerto); the range is high, but not excessively so, but it’s one of the few times in the repertoire when an orchestral instrumentalist can put their mark on “the product” in a definitive, personal way.  The flute in Daphnis, the horn in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony; it’s something one prepares for.

The beautiful unfolding of the Introduction, and even into the Augurs, Ritual of Abduction and Spring Rounds is something that has long haunted me.  Stravinsky’s amazing balance of seemingly-free rhapsody and whimsy on one hand, and tight harmonic control on the other, is impressive enough on paper and on disk.  But, sitting in the group emphasizes the sense of journey that the orchestra itself takes, with pairs of players often entering together, in getting to those primitive walls of sound that are bound to arrive eventually.  We are invited into this world, welcomed one by one.  By my watch, the first full-throated tutti fortissimos arrive around 6 or 7 minutes into the piece, and everybody on stage and in the audience gets there together, on their own winding path.

What I think surprised me the most is what needed effort to put together, and what didn’t.  In my estimation, about half of all rehearsal time was spent on the Danse Sacrale, the final 4 minutes of the piece.  It requires a kind of rote repetition, and players are prone to fall in to the many, many silences – the cracks in the sidewalk – between the repeated chords in the strings and winds toward the beginning of the movement.  Just one player (of 75 or so) miscounting, and the spell is broken, and as I recall, one mistake would beget another and then cracks appeared everywhere.  And in general, performing that music is an incredibly strange and awkward exercise.  A conductor never looks up, and neither does an orchestra; he or she is slamming down beats that are very often silent, with the orchestra hissing and chewing in retort somewhere in the middle (though it is not – not – just some version of a polka with a hiccup).  The roaring lion and his tamer, at hyperspeed.  Here’s a genuinely assured performance from someone (incidentally, with the same orchestra as shown above) who has obviously memorized it:

That’s about as comfy as it gets, which makes it all the more remarkable.  This music is, to me, the most blatant exploitation in the repertoire of the communication skills developed by orchestras and conductors.  It’s dazzling and grotesque (and can be nearly or overtly silly-looking) at the same time.  But then again, there’s a crowd who is sacrificing a young, not-exactly-willing virgin in the near vicinity.

But actually, there are large swathes of the piece that come together quickly and easily.  Things balance themselves tremendously well, and players with solo passages come prepared, as has long been expected of professionals.  To the composer in me, that is the magic of this piece, and a fact that I continually try to return to; Le Sacre du Printemps is for the orchestra, not against it.  The wildness, the power, it comes naturally, when people play what’s written on the page; of Stravinsky’s multiple geniuses, one was knowing (or merely sensing at that time?) what was bendable about the orchestra.  The shock was in the message, not in breaking or rewiring the messenger.   His early three ballets form a cogent argument against those who complain about what an orchestra can’t do: ah, but look at what they can do!  It was difficult for its time, but it was possible; now it’s a standard.  Just like Beethoven’s Seventh.

The other thing I distinctly remember and use in my experience with the Le Sacre is something that might seem trivial.  It’s a simple lesson, and it’s a constant for me.  Sitting in an orchestra sounds almost nothing like sitting away from the orchestra.  They are not comparable experiences (and they don’t rate plus-or-minus against each other), and I wish that every composer had a genuine chance to experience life on the inside.  From the vantage point of the bassoon section, for example, Brahms feels like warm honey and comfort: with the gooey-rich clarinets and horns all around, it’s like a clichéd advertisement for a ski-chalet weekend in Vermont or Switzerland.  Debussy on stage feels like wisps and sighs in another room – what a wonderful, crystalline, sprayed-ice texture that your instrument was designed and assembled to destroy upon first pp attack.  Mahler and Strauss?  Get out the tree-bark reeds, or better, go smoke a cigarette for an hour.  No one will miss you or notice you’ve been gone.  Stravinsky is special.  Few composers before and no composer since understood and valued the bassoon so thoroughly, in Le Sacre and in nearly every other work.  As a solo voice, as texture; for bite, for spice; for warmth, for coolness.  Like every composer, his use of the instruments is part of his musical personality, and like some, such as Sibelius, it looks in hindsight like its own way of the composer unconsciously asserting himself.  That week, although I was sitting directly in front of the blaring bass trumpet – just part of the general dull thudiness of the loud bits from 2-10 feet away, I heard a huge amount of music that I had never heard before, all from the middle of the orchestra.  From every direction, all the time.  It was the ultimate SurroundSound, and an amazing education for a young composer with shaking hands.

Finally, I return to Le Sacre and young composers, and to the most mysterious and perhaps most miraculous thing about this piece’s impact.  It is not strange that boys and girls of a certain age have found this visceral, three-dimensional music bewitching.  It’s exciting stuff (This is a position paper, right?  Have I made my opinion on that clear?).  And its place in history assures that the many of us who’ve followed Stravinsky and written music can point and say wow.  But why were so many of us, on first hearing of this piece in particular, sufficiently inspired or compelled, each in our own personal way, toward creation?  Somehow, this piece continues to serve as an invitation.  It’s a way into music, classical or not.  It’s not refined, but it drips with elegances in its construction.  It’s direct, but full of subtext and subtle contradictions.  It’s narrative, but dwells in abstraction.  It’s deadly serious, and constantly at play.  It’s Russian.  It’s French.  It’s pagan.  It’s sacred.  It’s prehistoric.  It’s modern.  At age 13, it seemed to me like something worth trying.  20 years later, I know better.  A work like Le Sacre du Printemps is, in the end, best left admired, hanging on the wall for everyone to experience.  But since May 1913, when a daring and panicked young foreigner fled a theatre during a riot, composers (and lots of other artists) have been able to trust that when expressing oneself, the sky is wide and possibilities vast, as long we’re prepared to get some skin in the game.  Some prefer to blame the scandal on the dancing, but in music and art, just as everywhere else, a little scandal and a little spotlight can be, in the long run, good for business.



The music of New York-based composer Sean Shepherd has been performed by the National Symphony, the New World Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic.  Shepherd’s works have been championed by such conductors as Oliver Knussen and Alan Gilbert, and in June 2012 he was named the New York Philharmonic’s first-ever Kravis Emerging Composer.  Upcoming performances include a world premiere of a work commissioned by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the U.S. premiere of Blur at Alice Tully Hall, both in March.

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