100th anniversary: remembering the first time I heard Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring"

There’s been a crazy amount of media coverage about the 100th anniversary of the performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” that caused riots (what great publicity then and even now). I’ve been bombarded with a lot of commentary. Some of it was interesting and insightful, but eventually I got tired of reading any further.

I decided to go back to the source, and listen to it again, and also actually watch it for the first time ever!

My first time

I totally remember the first time I ever heard excerpts of “The Rite of Spring”.

It was in a music class in college in around 1989 or 1990.

I was taking a two-semester music theory course sequence for non-majors. The instructor at one point played back for us excerpts of this music.

It was very startling music to me, very harsh and chaotic and confusing. I couldn’t say I hated it, but I certainly did not enjoy it at all. I had a rather conservative musical taste in college.

But you know what, I was quite stimulated in that our instructor didn’t require us to love it, but just put it on, showed his enthusiasm, and analyzed what was going on in some of the music, such as the changing irregular meters; the random accents; the bizarre orchestration; the deliberate violation of conventional harmonic voice leading.

Noticing some of the structural characteristics of the music didn’t always make them less harsh on my ear, but at least let me understand that this wasn’t just noise but was really thought out for a purpose.

I didn’t voluntarily listen to this music again for another quarter of a century, but those excerpts still stuck in my mind.

Today, a quarter of a century later


The main thing I decided was to actually watch the music as intended for ballet.

YouTube made this easy. Here’s the Joffrey Ballet:

I will confess that watching the ballet made the music much more engaging, because of correlations with action, and especially the drawn out repetitive nature of the music get boring for me in the absence of “something” going on, a story.

I was struck by how much I enjoy this music now. The textures Stravinsky creates are fresh and transparent, gorgeous even. The music emerges as though from the world itself. Many moods are portrayed, from the mysterious to the somber to the creepy to the deadly to the ecstatic.

It’s clearly not something I’d listen to every day, but I would happily revisit it now and then as I would a favorite film. This music lights my brain on fire!

Computer animation

The other thing I did was check out a computer animation of the score by Stephen Malinowski, thanks to an NPR blog post I saw mentioning it.

I loved it! Being able to see all the parts and how the voices flow with or against one another gave me a real thrill, an added dimension to just listening. You can see what is regular, what is irregular, what is sheer freedom.

Selected commentary

I said I quickly got tired of reading commentary. Nevertheless, here are some interesting links:


It was interesting to revisit strange music after a quarter of a century to find that my musical enjoyment had changed considerably. When I was in college, I thought “The Rite of Spring” was weird; now, I think it is a work of amazing beauty, expression, and creative freedom. Wow. And that was a hundred years ago. How could music ever be the same again after that!

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