The Rite stuff: Igor Stravinsky

Centenary of Stravinsky's notorious work prompts fond memories of the mainland's and HK's first attempts to meet its challenge, writes Oliver Chou

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 4:34pm

"One day, when I was finishing the last pages of The Firebird in St Petersburg [in 1910], I had a fleeting vision … I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a single girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring."

And so composer Igor Stravinsky explains the origins of his most controversial work for ballet, The Rite of Spring, made famous by its riotous première at Théâtres des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 29, 1913 - exactly 100 years ago this week.

What drove the sophisticated Parisian audience into a frenzy wasn't so much the pagan subject matter - it was what was happening on stage, compounded by the music coming from the pit. Dancers from the Ballets Russes were dressed up as what Stravinsky called "knock-kneed Lolitas", rough-hewn outfits that recalled a kind of prehistoric Russian primitivism that contrasted sharply with the elegant ballerinas who danced in Chopin's Les Sylphides just before the debut of The Rite.

Stravinsky's exotic music features unconventional metre changes and rhythmic effects played on heavy orchestration. It wrings new sounds out of old instruments such as the bassoon, the bass clarinet, the alto flute and the tenor tuba. It is a work that set out to defy tradition - and remain open to all musical possibilities.

Given the technical challenge of the unusual score, The Rite has become a benchmark test of an orchestra's virtuosity. And it is this challenge that tempted musicians in Beijing to try it out as soon as the official ban on "decadent" modern music was lifted. But they would have to wait until almost seven decades after the Paris première.

We were all there to listen to the live performance of 'The Rite', and it was very different from what we heard on cassette tapes in those days
Guo Wenjing, composer

The dress rehearsal at the Théâtres des Champs-Élysées went down well among a selection of Paris' "most cultured representatives", but the actual performance quickly turned sour. "The first bars of the prelude at once evoked derisive laughter. I was disgusted. These demonstrations, at first isolated, soon became general, provoking counter-demonstrations and very quickly developing into a terrific uproar," the composer recalled in his memoir many years later.

He did not attend subsequent performances. "After the notorious first night, I fell ill with typhoid and spent six weeks in a nursing home."

Stravinsky laid the blame for the disastrous première on the choreography of the young Vaslav Nijinsky. "The poor boy knew nothing of music," Stravinsky said of the 23-year old dancer-turned-choreographer. "Nijinsky was incapable of giving intelligible form to its essence, and complicated it further by clumsiness or lack of understanding."

In defence of his music, Stravinsky drove his point home by citing the great enthusiasm seen at concert versions of The Rite in Paris and London a year later. "Certain critics who had censored The Rite the year before now openly admitted their mistake," he said.

One audience member remained critical, however, but this wasn't mentioned in Stravinsky's memoir. " Mais il est fou, il est fou!" ("But he is crazy, he is crazy") said Camille Saint-Saëns, one of the greatest French composers, as he left halfway through the Paris performance.

While it took just one year for The Rite to be redeemed in the West, it would take decades before it would be heard in concert halls in this part of the world. The composer, who died in 1971, did not live to see it happen. The 1982 China première of the Rite took place at a time when Beethoven had just been rehabilitated after the calamitous decade-long Cultural Revolution. Composers from the 20th century, particularly those from the new classical school, had yet to get the official green light. Yet against all odds, The Rite found its way to the Chinese capital.

In retrospect, the première could not have come at a more critical time for China's bourgeoning young composers. Collectively known as the Class of 1978, they were the cream of the musical talent borne out of the Cultural Revolution who made it to the Central Conservatory in Beijing. Among the 1983 graduates were Oscar winners Tan Dun ( Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Su Cong ( The Last Emperor), Pulitzer Prize winner Zhou Long, 2008 Beijing Olympics anthem composer Chen Qigang, and the prolific opera-symphony composer Guo Wenjing.

"We were all there to listen to the live performance of The Rite, and it was very different from what we heard on cassette tapes in those days," recalls Guo, a full professor at the Central Conservatory. "The difference was very profound for us as composers, and the live performance opened us to a new aura of orchestration and dynamics. I must say I was very proud of my own orchestra too for surviving the difficult passages," he says.

The Rite of Spring, he adds, was not the latest musical language he and his colleagues were pursuing. There were more avant garde forms and styles they had been exposed to on campus that inspired and shaped their styles. "But it is always a fresh experience to hear it live and loud," he says.

Long before the first note was played at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities on February 26, 1982, a series of taboos in the classical music repertoire had dropped, one after another. The person responsible for untying the musical red tape was American conductor David Gilbert.

Now the music director of the Greenwich Symphony in Connecticut, Gilbert came to China in 1980 as a part of the cultural exchange programme endorsed by Deng Xiaoping.

This was during the honeymoon period of China-US relations after the normalisation of ties on New Year's Day 1979. Ideological concerns gradually gave way to diplomatic courtesy. Taking advantage of the circumstances, Gilbert brought with him new music scores every time he went to China.

"During my stay in Beijing, I introduced the Central Philharmonic Orchestra to 40 works which they had not played before. They ranged from Beethoven to the 20th century, including Mahler and Richard Strauss. One of those pieces was The Firebird, the very first work by Stravinsky they had played since the orchestra was founded in 1956, so they told me," he recalls.

"They loved it and asked for more. So I then programmed Petrushka - the complete ballet in the original orchestration. These performances were a huge success, and the orchestra enthusiastically asked for more Stravinsky. So I said, 'All right, you asked for it' and programmed The Rite of Spring," he says. " The Rite of Spring calls for the biggest orchestra of all, and players from different organisations were hired to join forces with the Central Philharmonic. There were even two members from the People's Liberation Army who played the high tuba parts. They were in uniform, and I will always remember their joyous smiles. They were having so much fun! Once again it was a huge success," he says.

For Gilbert, the performance was more than just another orchestral première. "It was my last concert with the orchestra after three years of close work with Chinese musicians. I am very honoured to be a part of this orchestra's history," he says.

In Hong Kong, the première of The Rite of Spring would not have been possible any time before 1974, the year the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra turned professional. Even so, it would take almost 10 years for some 80 musicians to come together to attempt the challenging work.

Almost a year after the China première, on the evening of January 28, 1983, a full house at the Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall for the first time heard The Rite of Spring played by the local ensemble.

The work required such a large force that 17 extra players, including four horns to make a total of eight, had to be recruited. "I remember it being a fine performance by an orchestra who were mostly unfamiliar with it," recalls Benedict Cruft, then the Phil's associate concertmaster and now the dean of the Hong Kong Academy of the Performing Arts' school of music. Professor Yu Siu-wah of Chinese University, who was in the audience, says: "The performance was not without defects, but I was taken by surprise that our orchestra could actually do it." Music professor and composer David Gwilt, who was a board member of the Phil at the time, sees beyond The Rite's performance. Without it, "the idea of music as sheer sound, without development, and even without clear motifs, would have taken longer to appear", he says.

"Perhaps only the advent of film music could have spurred some composers on to that sort of thing, so it would have happened much later in time. Rhythmic freedom of the sort which The Rite enabled would also have been harder to come by, probably. The so-called tyranny of the barline would have continued."

The Rite Centenary, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, May 31- June 1, 8pm, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 10 Salisbury Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui, HK$120-HK$320, Urbtix. Inquiries: 2734 9009