In the same singular explosion of creative energy that had given birth to The Firebird in 1910 and Petrushka in 1911, Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring (French: Le Sacre du Printemps) in 1911-1912. In this, the 100th anniversary of this seminal work, it seems fitting to mention that no less an authority than Aaron Copland characterized it simply as “…the foremost orchestral achievement of the 20th century.” Leonard Bernstein said of one passage, “That page is sixty years old, but it’s never been topped for sophisticated handling of primitive rhythms…” Of the work as a whole, Bernstein said, “…it’s also got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms and whatever else you care to name.” (Stravinsky’s reaction to Bernstein’s 1958 recording of Le Sacre with the New York Philharmonic was rather more succinct: “Wow!”)
I was introduced to The Rite of Spring as a child through its inclusion in Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”. Although Stravinsky derided that performance as “execrable”, and the accompanying animation as “an unresisting imbecility”, the movie nevertheless introduced his masterpiece to a vastly wider audience than it would otherwise have had. Much later, I saw a televised performance of Stravinsky himself conducting Le Sacre, and purchased the 1961 recording in which he leads the Columbia Symphony Orchestra.
Concerning its composition, Stravinsky said,
I was guided by no system whatever in Le Sacre du Printemps. When I think of the music of the other composers of that time who interest me – Berg’s music, which is synthetic (in the best sense), and Webern’s, which is analytic – how much more theoretical it seems than Le Sacre. And these composers belonged to and were supported by a great tradition. Very little immediate tradition lies behind Le Sacre du Printemps, however, and no theory. I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed.
I know of no other piece of music that can match Le Sacre du Printemps for pure unrelenting excitement. I never tire of listening to it. It sounds as daring and innovative to me today as it did the first time I heard it, more than fifty-five years ago. In this brilliant video, produced by PBS, Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.