Hear The Rite of Spring Conducted by Igor Stravinsky Himself: A Vintage Recording from 1929

Though more than a cen­tu­ry of musi­cal change has passed since its infa­mous­ly near-riotous debut at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, The Rite of Spring remains a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge for any con­duc­tor. “I remem­ber the first time I con­duct­ed the ‘Rite’ more than half a cen­tu­ry ago,” the late Rafael Früh­beck de Bur­gos told The Los Ange­les Times in 2013, the year of the pagan bal­let and orches­tral work’s cen­te­nary. “I need­ed two weeks to pre­pare it. This piece, no mat­ter how many times you have per­formed it, is a mon­ster who can eat you in one moment. There are so many places that are dan­ger­ous. This will nev­er be a nor­mal piece.”

Sei­ji Oza­wa, who has record­ed The Rite of Spring with the Chica­go and Boston Sym­pho­ny Orches­tras, knows that full well. In Absolute­ly on Music, his book of con­ver­sa­tions with nov­el­ist Haru­ki Muraka­mi, he address­es the “fias­co” of that very first per­for­mance: “The piece itself is part­ly to blame, but it could well be that the orches­tra was­n’t ful­ly pre­pared to per­form it. The piece is full of musi­cal acro­bat­ics. I wish I had asked Pierre Mon­teux about it direct­ly. We were very close for a while.” He means the con­duc­tor of The Rite of Spring’s debut, who went on to record it in 1929, just as soon as elec­tron­ic micro­phones made it pos­si­ble to do so.

So, how­ev­er, did Stravin­sky him­self, whose own 1929 record­ing with the Walther Straram Con­certs Orches­tra, per­form­ing again in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, you can hear at the top of the post. But this record, as Peter Gut­mann writes at Classicalnotes.net, is “not by the com­pos­er of the Rite. No, I haven’t uncov­ered a fraud. It’s indeed Stravin­sky who wields the baton, but in the 16 years since the pre­miere he had under­gone a vast change of artis­tic per­son­al­i­ty. No longer the wild fire­brand who had scan­dal­ized musi­cal soci­ety, he had con­vert­ed to neo­clas­si­cism, and that’s just the type of read­ing he leads here – dis­pas­sion­ate, man­i­cured and ret­i­cent, with the final sac­ri­fi­cial dance down­right labored.” You can com­pare Stravin­sky’s first record­ing to Mon­teux’s first record­ing, with the Grand Orchestre Sym­phonique, just below.

That 1929 record hard­ly marked the end of Mon­teux’s rela­tion­ship with the piece: “When Stravin­sky first played him the music for The Rite, Mon­teux had to go and sit down in anoth­er room, con­clud­ing that he would stick to con­duct­ing Brahms,” writes WQXR’s Phil Kline. But after first con­duct­ing it, he worked with the com­pos­er on score touch-ups and became the lead­ing pro­po­nent of The Rite as a con­cert work,” ulti­mate­ly record­ing it not just once but four times. Recent gen­er­a­tions, of course, have most­ly come to know The Rite of Spring through Leopold Stokowski’s ver­sion in Dis­ney’s Fan­ta­sia, a ren­di­tion Stravin­sky called “exe­crable.” But if the sheer, bru­tal-seem­ing uncon­ven­tion­al­i­ty of the piece shocked its Parisian audi­ence in 1913, we in the 21st cen­tu­ry, lis­ten­ing to the many inter­pre­ta­tions that have come out in the past 89 years, might well find our­selves star­tled at how many pos­si­bil­i­ties The Rite of Spring still con­tains.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch 82-Year-Old Igor Stravin­sky Con­duct The Fire­bird, the Bal­let Mas­ter­piece That First Made Him Famous (1965)

Hear 46 Ver­sions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 3 Min­utes: A Clas­sic Mashup

Stravinsky’s “Ille­gal” Arrange­ment of “The Star Span­gled Ban­ner” (1944)

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Visu­al­ized in a Com­put­er Ani­ma­tion for Its 100th Anniver­sary

Hear Igor Stravinsky’s Sym­phonies & Bal­lets in a Com­plete, 32-Hour, Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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