An in depth exploration of Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps ("The Rite of Spring") for Seminar In Musicology Summer I 2009 Dr. Melanie Foster Taylor Converse College

Monday, June 15, 2009

Analysis of The Rite of Spring

Composers of the late 19th and early 20th century found a dilemma as the traditional role of dissonance as a vehicle for harmonic motion was abandoned. The problem with dissonance that does not lead to an inevitable resolution is a total cessation of harmonic and thus musical motion. According to musicologist Stephen Walsh the great innovation of the rite is not the dissonance or the immobility of the harmonic progression because both of these ideas were in practice before Stravinsky’s work. Walsh cites Debussy’s Et la Lune Descend Sur le Temple Qui Fut’ (1907) as being both discordant and harmonically static. The true innovation was Stravinsky’s use of musical fragments and compelling rhythms to provide a structure to drive the dramatic action and thus free the frozen harmonic gears.(Walsh, Stephen p.44)
“What nobody seems to have done before the Rite of Spring was to take dissonant, irregularly formed musical ‘objects’ of very brief extent and release their latent energy by firing them off at one another like so many like so many particles in an atomic accelerator “ (Walsh, Stephen p.44)

Stravinsky’s method of composition for Le Sacre was to arrange and layer small cells of music. Each “cell” is both a melodic and rhythmic essence of the folk melody from which it was derived. See the Analysis below above recreated from the Stephen Walsh Book (Walsh, Stephen p.44 ) These musical fragments often consist of as few as four notes but they are repeated and reoriented to create ostinati, or stacked to generate chords, or embellished to create melodic material. Le Sacre was originally thought to contain only one true folk tune: the high bassoon part which begins the introduction. Later investigation into more of Stravinsky's sketches in 1969 revealed complete folk melodies copied from published collections (Walsh,Stephen p.43) Although, after being thoroughly worked, reorganized and chopped up by Stravinsky very little of the actually tune remains intact save for a faint essence of their musical personality. According to Van Den Toorn another strong adhesive component in the work is the ubiquitous use of the octatonic scale and it’s derived chords. (Van Den Toorn, Pieter)
"Indeed, The Rite is one of the most thoroughly octatonic of Stravinsky's works..." (Van Den Toorn, Pieter p.123)
Stravinsky not only employed the octatonic scale as others had before, he redifiend it's use and context completeley. By encorperating long steams of octatonic chords and seeding them with superimositions and chunks of diatonic material Stravinsky created a vocabulary all his own.

"... and to an astonishing degree, the vocabulary that informs this referential commitment remains intact: triads, dominant sevenths, and (0 2 3 5) tetrachords. The distinction rests primarily with the technique of superimposition. In The Rite , the (0, 3, 6, 9) symmetrically defined units no longer succeed one another, harmlessly, as they do in the operas of Rimsky or in the early Stravinsky passages cited above. These units are now superimposed—played simultaneously. And this is an invention from which startling implications accrue not only in pitch organization but, as a consequence, in rhythm and instrumental design as well. It radically alters the conditions of octatonic confinement, opens up a new dimension in octatonic thought that Stravinsky, beginning with Petrushka and The Rite , was to render peculiarly his own. (Van Den Toorn, Pieter p.124)

The octatonic scale is an eight note scale consisting of the pattern / H / W / H / W / H / W / H / W / The octatonic scale contributes to the atonal quality of the harmonies. But, it should be noted that Stravinsky was not limited to these sonorities and used many conventional chords in the Rite, although he did not use them in the customary way. (Walsh, Stephen p.44) That is to say they did not propel the harmonic motion as in a standard chord progression. Confronted with the same problem as his predicessors Stravinsky’s unique solution to the going nowhere feeling of atonal music was the development of the musical cell and his stunning use of rhythm.

Stravinsky layers each cell within a framework of rhythm. Ostinatos revolve continuously until their momentum is somehow resolved. Sometimes these repeating motives are quelled by the emergence of a diatonic melody, another hallmark of Stravinsky’s style. However, These oasis's of melody rapidly devolve back into tonal ambiguity
" Pierre Boulez once described The Rite as a piece in which a "vertical chromaticism" stood opposed to a "horizontal diatonicism." By this he meant that while the vertical alignment is often chromatic, the individual parts are in themselves often simple and diatonic."(Van den Toorn p.129)

Each pattern of stratified cells and rhythms emerges sometimes slowly and other times suddenly. Structures cycle, gathering steam, until they suddenly jump to a new parallel or they simply fall apart into quiet a sea of a new pulsing bass line. In the more aggressive movements the recitation of a motif often continues, building momentum, collecting thicker and thicker layers of melodic fragments like a snowball until it is shattered by a percussive explosion. These devises of rhythmic and motivic transition form the basis for the Rite of Spring’s cadential device. When harmonic ambiguity circumvents the listeners need for a resolution Stravinsky provides one with a change in either rhythm, density, or melody, or all three. The second movement of part two "The Augurs of Spring " is an example how layers build and then come to a close with a rhythmic cadence. Click on the excerpts below to have a closer look.

In closing it is important to remember that Stravinsky did not adhere to a particular method or theory. Perhaps the best thing about the Rite is it's freedom of imagination.
"I was guided by no system whatever in Le Sacre du printemps. When I think of the other composers of that time who interest me—Berg, who is synthetic (in the best sense), Webern, who is analytic, and Schoenberg, who is both—how much more theoretical their music seems than Le Sacre; and these composers were supported by a great tradition, whereas very little immediate tradition lies behind Le Sacre du printemps. I had only my ear to help me. I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed." Igor Stravinsky (Stravinsky and Craft, p.147-48)


Pierre Boulez, Notes of an Apprenticeship , trans. Herbert Weinstock (New York: Knopf, 1968), p. 74.

Van den Toorn, Pieter C. Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Walsh, Stephen. The Music of Igor Stravinsky. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1988.


  1. so what is the key of Angurs of Spring dance?

  2. Van den Toorn, p. 138 suggests E-flat superimposed on an E-major triad. Lately i'm inclined to to call is a harmonization of melodic minor or you can go with E octatonic. what ever you choose to call the harmony the powerful rhythms are primary focus here anyway.

    Van den Toorn, Pieter C. (1987). Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring: The Beginnings of a Musical Language. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-05958-1.

  3. All of the musical examples are missing from this page. I tried to load it on two computers but to no avail.