I don’t always want to write about my cancer, folks! Some of my best descriptive writing can be found in my journals, so here’s another morsel for your enjoyment, followed by notes.
October 23, 2014
We went to hear the IU Symphony Orchestra perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I worked on the costume crew for the ballet long ago, but there is a huge difference between listening with one ear to the piped-in public address system, or even standing in the wings holding a quick-change costume, and sitting in the first balcony absorbing the blows of the music. My god, this was one of the great experiences of my life. The music was, as Kessler wrote long ago, “…a new kind of wildness, both un-art and art at the same time. All forms laid waste and new ones emerging suddenly from the chaos.” In the first movement I could hear things being born, and hear precursors of other things dying. The strange thing is that Frank interpreted it mostly the same way as I. “I didn’t hear things dying,” he said, “but I heard them being born.” But why did we, and Kessler, interpret the dissonance and arrhythmic beats as things being born at all? There are no predecessors in this kind of music to make us aware of what “things being born” sound like when translated into music.
The sounds of the Rite of Spring hit my belly like knife stabs. My heart beat faster, tears swam in my eyes, my forehead knotted into deep creases, my breath almost sobbed. I came to the edge of bursting into tears at five different places. The orchestra was so loud in one or two or three points that it could have been a rock performance. The main timpanist certainly got a workout; he deserves a clap on the back and a free dinner at the restaurant of his choice for such hard work. The guest conductor, Nowaks, disdained the evening wear that’s usual in conductors, and instead wore black trousers beneath a — there is no other description for the garment — “frock coat.” But a frock coat made of shining silvery gray with intricate paisley-like patterning in it, very loosely cut and falling to mid-thigh. “He’s a bohemian,” I said to Frank admiringly. There were two musicians playing “Wagner tubas,” which neither of us had ever heard of before. The instruments were laid down beside the chairs of the French horn players, who doubled on the Wagner tuba in the especially loud parts. They resemble the French horn but are more beautiful, with less piping, and the piping arrangement is an oval instead of a circle. There were something like eight double-basses being sawn away at, and a flotilla of violinists and another flotilla of cellists. There were 106 musicians listed in the programme.
We applauded and applauded, and stood in respect at the great accomplishment we had witnessed and shivered in front of. Frank did not nearly weep, as I did, but admitted to feeling as though the music was piercing him. “I’m really glad we witnessed this,” we both agreed.
Note: The initial performance of the ballet version of this work did not in fact cause a riot, as is often claimed; but there was quite a bit of hissing, stamping and jeering from portions of the audience, and some of the loudest objectors had to be removed from the theater. Part of the furor was a response to Nijinski’s choreography, which featured clumsy movements on the part of dancers who stamped, jumped and toed-in instead of toeing-out, the better to represent the ballet’s story of a prehistoric tribe choosing a maiden to be a human sacrifice. But many of the objections were to the music itself, which was of a sort never heard before. To use modern terminology, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring disrupted the comfort zone of listeners to a degree never experienced until then.
Here’s a BBC Proms video of an orchestral performance of the work. Be sure to listen to it with the volume turned up until you flinch! And here’s an interesting BBC drama that depicts the rehearsals and opening night of the original ballet, Riot at the Rite; its last half-hour shows the dancers in real time doing their best to carry on with the opening night’s performance despite disruptions from the house.