Friday, September 20, 2013

The Rite of Spring

Tonight we went to the Yale Philharmonia's performance of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring at the incomparable Woolsey Hall. It was quite possibly the best live performance I have ever been to, not just for the skill of the instrumentalists, but also the magnitude of the piece. (And it didn't hurt that we've been living and breathing the Rite over the past few weeks. I think the preparation and anticipation made the performance that much better.)  All I could think afterwards was, "Now THAT's how you use an orchestra!"

Is it perhaps my new favorite piece? Maybe. Would I go see it again any chance I get? Definitely!

It was such a real joy to go to the concert with the kids, too. After all the fantastic work they did getting excited about the Rite with our lessons and activities, the night out was a real treat. They all seemed to have loved it, and we were all quite literally on the edges of our seats! We were all tracking the ballet in our minds, cringing, for instance, when the Chosen One fell outside the circle for the second time or began her dance to the death!

The orchestra was great, and now when I listen to my recording of The Rite of Spring, I am sure to hear more nuances than before. We all loved the woman who played the principal timpani, she had such poise and energy. (There was quite a percussion section, including 10 timpani, a bass drum, a gong, cymbals, and a number of small instruments.) And the bassoon soloist nailed the beginning of the piece!

Fortunately there was no riot like at the 1913 premier. But there was a well-deserved ten minute standing ovation!

Congratulations, Yale Philharmonia, on a job well-done!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Writing The Rite

Putting together lessons on The Rite of Spring for the kids recently has gotten me really interested (OK, read "obsessed") with The Rite. Not just as a piece of music, as we will hear tomorrow at the concert, but as an event, a performance, a ballet, a turning point, a masterpiece . . . but most of all, as a work of art that has inspired many for the past 100 years.

Having access to Yale's vast collections is one of the benefits of working for the University, so I picked up a few tomes for light reading. In case you find yourself in the mood to learn more about The Rite of Spring, these should get you started:

  • Avatar of Modernity: The Rite of Spring Reconsidered (2013) is an anthology of essays published just this year in celebration of the centenary of The Rite of Spring. It brings together experts from numerous fields with new scholarly writings. I think I am going to tackle this bad boy first!
  • Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (2000) by Peter Hill "provides a comprehensive guide to the work, telling in vivid detail the story of its inception and composition, of the stormy rehearsals which lad to the scandalous premiere on 29 May 1913." I'll take the cover's word for it as I have not yet started reading this volume.
  • Nijinsky's Crime Against Grace: Reconstruction Score of the Original Choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps (1996) presents Millicent Hodson's research into the original Nijinsky choreography, which was lost following the ballet's premier. Her research was used in 1987 to stage the ballet with the original choreography for the first time in more than 70 years. The preface of the book is a good scholarly essay in and of itself.
  • Stravinsky in the Theatre (1949) has several chapters which discuss The Rite of Spring.
  • Since I am sometimes a dork and enjoy looking at the music while listening to recordings, I also checked out the full orchestral score of The Rite of Spring. The version I have was published by Boosey & Hawkes in 1997 based on the 1967 re-engraved edition of Stravinsky's 1947 revisions. (Say that 10 times fast!)

In the mean time, less than 24 hours until we hear The Rite of Spring live! Can you tell that I am excited?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Rite Stuff - Lesson 5 - Interpretations

Introduction [15 min]

In the 100 years since it premiered, The Rite of Spring has inspired many people to create new and interesting works of art or interpretations of the piece. Watch excerpts from the following interpretations:
What do you think about what you just watched? Were some interpretations better than others? Which one did you enjoy most? Least?

Activity [30-45 min preparation; 5 min performance]

Work together as a team to select a movement from The Rite of Spring and choreograph your own production. Use all you have learned as you consider the choreography, set design, and costumes, and how they relate to the story and the music. Perform the piece for your audience.


We had to modify our activity for the evening as Luana sprained her ankle earlier today. We joked that she might actually die if she tried to dance the final dance of the Chosen One with a sprained ankle!

However, it sounds like the kids are excited to put on their own choreography at a later time, complete with costumes etc. I will be sure to post another update when they do!

In the mean time, I thought I would put up the kids' favorite Rite interpretation, below. (They also enjoyed the dinosaurs from Fantasia.)

[Note: I sometimes enjoy reading music while listening to music, so I absolutely love these graphical scores. The same author has uploaded many different classical pieces, just click around YouTube to find them. They are fascinating to watch!]

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Rite Stuff - Lesson 4 - Setting the Stage

Introduction [10 min]

The set and costumes for The Rite of Spring were designed by Russian philosopher, archeologist, and artist Nicholas Roerich.

Discuss the importance of set and costume design in setting the mood and tone for stage performances such as ballet, theatre, or musicals. How might different costumes or sets change the way a piece is interpreted by the audience? Is there room for directors, set designers, costume designers, and choreographers to re-interpret the performance of the original ballet?

Activity [30 min]

Imagine you are a designer for a modern-day production of The Rite of Spring. Make a sketch for one of the stage backdrops you might use. Then, using a fashion-design underlay, sketch your own costumes for the characters in the ballet. Share your work with the group.


In order to aid with our inspiration, we decided to listen to a recording of The Rite of Spring while we were drawing and designing.

Brayan (age 8) designed a forceful backdrop which shows the sun as well as the dark purple of the evening all in one. His costume designs are rendered in vibrant oranges in bold patterns. The male dancer's headband and the female dancer's braids are primitive in nature, taking inspiration from the revival performance of the ballet we watched previously. Brayan could easily grow up to be a fashion designer--his style is immaculate...and those shoes! Do you see the designer shoes on her feet!?

Luana (age 9) was inspired by the geometric patterns embroidered on the original costumes from the 1913 ballet when she drew her backdrop, a pattern of shining stars, circles, and triangles (inspired by the hats from 1913). The costume design, while paying homage to the "primitive" 1913 costumes, have lines, patterns, and colors all her own. I love the palette she chose. The seemingly opposing colors of the male and female dancers are all brought together in the backdrop. The female dancer's long beaded hair is really something! 

Lucas (age 11) suggested the ballet's theme of sacrifice quite forcefully in the design of his backdrop, which illustrates a giant hand descending from the clouds lowering a helpless maiden toward an infernal sun. His costumes are a study in contrast, with somewhat bulky male clothes in opposition to the tight dress on the female dancer. And I think she might be wearing fishnet stockings. I love their crazy hair!

I also tried my hand at a set and costume design. I was going for a bit of a minimal theme in the backdrop, so layers of spring greens fill the stage. Subtle orange and blue lines play off the predominantly blue and orange costumes of the dancers, which were intended to be minimal in cut and line, but with spring-like accessories. Both male and female dancers have vines around their legs and are wearing laurel crowns to welcome the spring.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Rite Stuff - Lesson 3 - The Riot at the Rite

Introduction [15-20 min]

The audience’s reaction to the premier of The Rite of Spring is legendary. Watch an excerpt from the BBC movie Riot at the Rite [45:15 - 1:25:16 documents the entire ballet and the audience reaction; clicking through a few parts should be sufficient for the lesson; note if you are showing the video to children, be aware that there are some scenes, mostly outside this time range, which show aspects of the homoerotic relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky, however, there is a kiss backstage at the conclusion of the ballet at 1:23:32]. Now read from the 1913 article published in the New York Times, “Parisians Hiss New Ballet.” Then listen to an excerpt from Radiolab’s “Musical Language” [+/- 32:00 - 35:00] and then consider the following questions:
  • Why do you think the audience responded in the way they did? [Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony tells us that the audience would have been “expecting to see something bright, colorful, exotic, with lots of leaping, lots of diaphanous costumes that would give you occasional lovely glimpses of gorgeous anatomy. That's not what they got. They got a very dark piece with people mostly moving on the floor, even writhing on the floor. They were all wearing very dark costumes that looked like animal skins and they had very puffy sleeves and hats and very odd, strange movements that they made — very angular, funny movements. And, of course, there was a score, which was at that time being very courageously played, but which must have been right on the edges of what was comprehensible to the musicians and the public."]
  • Compare your knowledge of The Rite of Spring to images of other ballets that preceded it, like Swan LakeThe NutcrackerDon Quixote, and Les Sylphides. What differences do you notice?

Activity [15-20 min]

Discuss what a critic is. Pretend you are a music critic having just seen a performance of The Rite of Spring ballet for the first time today. What would you tell others about the ballet? Write your own short review of The Rite of Spring and then share your review with the group. You may want to touch on your reactions to the music, the choreography, the scenery, the costumes, the dancers, and the story-line. Be sure to come up with a catchy newspaper headline for your piece!


We had another really successful lesson and the kiddos were able to understand, even just based on their own preconceptions of ballet, why the audience might have reacted in the way they did. And they did a really great job on their reviews! I am so proud of them.

I have transcribed their awesome articles from kid-ese below.

Brayan (age 8):

The music was very wise. It was a huge piece of art. It was lovely. The dancers were a little rough at the second piece. It seemed like everything was blooming. The piece of music seemed like it was floating. The music was strong. In part two [it was] a little freaky [and] at the end [it] was nice [and] low.

[Brayan said he put the title at the end of the review because the end of The Rite of Spring sounds like shattering glass, and so he wanted the title at the end of the review. Notice also the stage curtain surrounding the title.]

Luana (age 9):


I loved The Rite of Spring. There was lots of people there. In the beginning of the music it was nice and calm, the music was loud. I really enjoyed the ballet but there were some people that did not like it. They thought the ballet would be like pretty people dancing with tutus and high jumps but it was something totally different. It was unique. People don't usually see that kind of stuff.

Well I enjoyed The Rite of Spring because if you really thought about it and saw all the little parts and interesting things that there were I think you might enjoy it too.

The setting was nice for the background of Act 1. [It] was tall, bumpy, dark mountains. There was Act 2 and Act 1. They were totally different from each other. Act 1 was bright and sunny, Act 2 was sad [and] dark. All the costumes sort of looked the same.

I hope you enjoy when you go see it.

Lucas (age 11):


The music started out friendly. But after a couple of minutes it was scary and was that way through most of the ballet. There was loud low pitches that made you want to lower the music.

I could see how the music went well with the story. I understood that at the end when the girl was dancing she was tired and wanted to give up.

The costumes didn't look normal at all. The boys had tall orange hats, and some of the actors had animal skins on their backs. Their dresses and robes were long and loose. Long enough to trap air inside when the girls twirled around.

The stage looked like they were in a forest with a mountain. The mountain had a little bit of snow at the bottom so that kind of gave me a clue that winter was just about over and the people were celebrating spring.

The dancers sure had interesting moves. They were excited and put lots of effort into their stomps. They jumped very high and looked like their faces were petrified!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Rite Stuff - Lesson 2 - The Story of the Rite

Introduction [10 min]

Now often performed as a stand-alone piece of orchestral music, The Rite of Spring was written by Igor Stravinsky as a ballet. It was first performed by the Ballets Russes in Paris under the direction of Sergei Diaghilev with choreography by the famous Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Discuss the following topics as a group:
  • What is a ballet?
  • What is a “Rite”?
  • The piece was originally known as The Consecration of Spring. What does “Consecration” mean?
  • What does “Spring” usually remind you of? How might the concept of “Spring” relate to the story of The Rite of Spring?
  • The subtitle of The Rite of Spring is “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts.” What does “Pagan” mean?
Using the above questions as a framework, describe the basic plot premise of The Rite of Spring, in which pagan tribes celebrate the renewal of the earth in a ceremony in which a young maiden is chosen as a sacrifice to please the god of spring.

Activity [30 min]

Watch excerpts of the original ballet choreography, which was revived by the Joffrey Ballet in the 1980s. Pay special attention to the relationships between the music, the choreography, the costumes, and the scenery. At the end, share your thoughts about the ballet with the group. Did the ballet effectively tell a compelling story without the use of words?

Part 1: The Adoration of the Earth
  • Introduction [0:00] - Instrumental
  • The Augurs of Spring [3:00] - Spring is celebrated as an old woman tells the future
  • Ritual of Abduction [6:08] - Tribal dance
  • Spring Rounds [7:30] - Tribal dance
  • Ritual of the Rival Tribes [11:14] - Tribal dance
  • Procession of the Sage [13:03] - The old Sage enters and blesses the earth
  • Dance of the Earth [14:08] - The tribes dance to celebrate the earth

Part 2: The Sacrifice
  • Introduction [15:22] - Instrumental
  • Mystic Circles of the Young Girls [15:50] - The girls dance in circles to select the Chosen One
  • Glorification of the Chosen One [18:30] - The girls dance around the Chosen One
  • Evocation of the Ancestors [20:30] - The ancestors are summoned by the girls
  • Ritual Action of the Ancestors [21:05] - The ancestors dance around the Chosen One
  • Sacrificial Dance [24:24] - The Chosen One springs to life and dances herself to death


Before we watched the video of the performance, we had a lively discussion about ballets, rites, and pagan ceremonies.

When asked what a ballet was, Luana said, "it's dancing like this," as she put her hands in a circle above her head. Lucas added that the dancers wear tutus. We decided that a ballet was a dance that told a story without any words like a play or musical might have. I asked them to remember their preconceptions about ballets and see whether The Rite of Spring was what they expected.

We also talked about the plot of the ballet and how some "pagan" religions believed in offering sacrifices to their god(s) at different times of year to ensure a fruitful season. So as not to disturb the younger kids too much, I did soften the concept of the human sacrifice. Basically, we talked about how the Chosen One, once selected, would dance in a frenzy until she collapsed and died of exhaustion. Some of them were concerned that this might be a true story, and we reassured them that it was a fictional story and a piece of art to enjoy.

In the end, the kids really loved watching the ballet. Afterwards they described the story-line as "creepy-cool." One of them came to me later, clearly having thought about the ballet some more afterwards, and said, "you know, that was really disturbing." Luana was super-psyched about the whole thing and is actually watching the ballet again as I write this.

The kids were particularly taken by the Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One in the last few minutes of the ballet. After the video finished, they were inspired to jump around the kitchen re-enacting the many leaps of the Chosen One (below right). They also joined hands and stood up on their tippy-toes in a recreation of the groups of dancers in the Spring Rounds (below left).

The Rite has even had an impact on their play. This afternoon I walked over to their setup to find the Disney princesses re-enacting the selection of the Chosen One. I never thought I would be so proud to overhear one of my children say (and with such glee), "they're deciding which one of them is going to die!"

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Rite Stuff - Lesson 1 - Listening for the First Time

Introduction [2 min]

Provide only a brief introduction to the piece so as not to influence the activity with preconceived ideas:

The Rite of Spring is a piece of music written by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. It was first performed in Paris in May of 2013 and is now more than 100 years old.

Activity [35-40 min]

Gather art and craft supplies. Listen to The Rite of Spring using it as inspiration for creating a single piece of artwork or a series of “scenes.” When the music is over, tell the group about your artwork and describe how you felt while listening to the piece.


Though I was a bit nervous before we started about holding the kids' attention for the half-hour-long piece, our first lesson was a real success. The kids enjoyed the Rite, and the artwork kept them focused for the duration. At the end, they were even begging for the next lesson! I was really proud of them.

The artwork the kids produced was great. We asked them to really listen to the piece and be inspired by it, not just draw something preconceived. Listening to the descriptions of their own artwork, it was clear that they took the assignment seriously.

Brayan (age 8) produced several pieces:

His first shows a wizard with a magic staff. There are raindrops on at the top of the page. The zig-zag lines and spirals are his visual representation of some of the repetitive elements of the piece.

Part of the piece reminded him of a ship in a storm. He drew the waves and sky rhythmically to the timing of the music.

His last drawing shows a conductor with a baton, in a frenzy of activity, conducting the Rite. (I love the stern expression on the conductor's face! And is that baton smoking!?) The footprints relate to one particularly heavy part of the piece with lots of drums. The little diagonal slashes on the lower left say "Pip, Yow, Pip, Yow," also inspired by the instrumentation of the piece.

Luana (age 9) also created a few different drawings:

During the mysterious beginning of the piece, she drew a woman laying in bed "giving birth." (Spring? Rebirth? There is some sort of deep and astute meaning that she picked up on in this one, I am sure.)

The next drawing presented the idea of different seasons during the different movements. From top to bottom she shows a lightning storm, gently falling snow, and then spring flowers.

Part of the piece reminded her of a party. This is a group of people dancing for Cinco de Mayo--notice the red and green decorations hanging from the ceiling. (She was particularly concerned that the gentleman on the right did not have a partner.)

Lucas (age 11) created only one drawing, but with many parts, layered on throughout the piece:

The concentric circles at the lower right represent that the piece builds on itself slowly to create something larger. The jagged lines and spirals represent different parts of the piece, both harsh and lyric. The red dots represent the end of the piece.

Kim and I also participated in the activity:

Kim layered up one drawing throughout the piece, with representation of drums and trumpets in particular. The staircases represent ascending melodies. And like Brayan, she used waves and footprints to represent different parts of the melodic and rhythmic elements of the piece.

My drawing is sort of visual map of the piece, though I was not super prescriptive about using particular shapes consistently throughout the drawing. It was more about the feeling of the piece as it developed. However, curves generally represent strings or woodwinds, angular forms are brass, and drums or heavy rhythmic themes are generally slashes or dashes. Where shapes and lines overlap, it represents the layered instrumentation of the piece. Many of the strokes were laid down in time to the music.

Overall, I was really happy with the way this lesson and activity turned out. I am really looking forward to our next lesson!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Rite Stuff - Introduction

As the new school year gets underway in earnest and routines start to establish themselves for the academic year once again, we decided to add a few items to our typical repertoire of activities to get us out of the house. Each month we will participate as a family in at least one cultural activity and one outdoor activity. Kim is going to organize our outdoor activities, and I am really excited to be taking charge of the cultural ones.

This month we are going to hear a performance by the Yale Philharmonia of the music from Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring, which scandalized audiences when it premiered in Paris in 1913. A century later, the work and its composer are much more well-known and the music from the ballet continues to receive top billing at concerts around the world. And though the history of 20th century classical music has perhaps softened some of the edginess of the Rite, it is still . . . well . . . a bit strange to tell the truth.

When I was younger, my Dad and I used to lay on the living room floor with our eyes closed surrounded by all-encompassing classical music playing from the family sound system. (Records anyone?) We listened carefully, sometimes over and over again, inventing stories about the music. It was in this way that I was introduced to many classical pieces which I continue to love to this day: Copland's Appalachian Spring, Strauss' Blue Danube, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Pachelbel's Canon, Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D-minor. (Dad, if you are reading this, these are some of my favorite memories.)

This love of music set the stage for my own "discoveries" as an adult of composers Steve Reich, John Adams, Edgar Meyer, Kevin Volans. And now with plans to hear a performance of The Rite of Spring next week, I fear I am only just now "discovering" Stravinsky and his Rite. (Regrets to Fantasia's dinosaur skit.)

Though there are times when simply immersing one's self in music is enough to elicit instant love-at-first-listen, I have found that, in general, I appreciate and enjoy classical music more when I understand a little more about the story surrounding the piece and its history. I find this true of 20th century classical music in general, and especially with more complex and storied pieces like Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

I admit, I put the concert on our family calendar knowing simply that hearing a live performance of The Rite of Spring is a sort of rite of passage, if you'll excuse the pun. It was certainly not from a well-educated point of view that I listened to the entire piece from beginning to end for the first time only a few weeks ago to prepare myself. My reaction, perhaps like that of the Paris audience a century ago, was visceral. The haunting melodies that surge and emerge. The beat. The dissonance. I was intrigued by its strangeness.

Since then I have listened to the piece all the way through a number of times and to excerpts of the piece even more. I have also watched a performance of the original ballet choreography, which was lost for decades but revived in the 1980s after much research by the Joffrey Ballet (available on YouTube). In fact, watching the ballet instead of just hearing the music helped me appreciate the piece in a new way. Each time I hear the piece, I love it even more. It is beautiful in a terrifying way.

Because the work is so complex and unusual--and because I wanted my children to be able to truly enjoy the concert too--I worried that maintaining focus and interest at the concert hall next week would be too much to expect of them if they were not exposed to the piece ahead of time. Therefore, over the past few weeks I have been preparing a number of lessons and activities to introduce them to the piece and its history. We had our first lesson last night and it was a smashing success. Over the next few days, I intend to post my lesson outlines, as well as the products of each activity, so stay tuned!