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

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A review of three recordings of ""Le Sacre du Printemps

The challenges that face the conductor and orchestra face when tackling Le Sacre are numerous. Players confront high ranges, complex syncopation, and shifting meters. Conductors must make thousands of decisions about dynamics, pacing, phrasing, tempo, tone color and more, all within the framework of Stravinsky’s inspired plan. While listening to these recordings I was ever returning to the score to be sure the orchestras were performing the same music or that I was listening to the correct segment. However, again and again I found the notes correct and that some minor matter of interpretation had thrown me off track. The three recordings are:

STRAVINSKY Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) Ballet Suite for Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, conductor Recorded in 1929 by Columbia-Europe, this is the earliest recording of Stravinksy conducting "Le Sacre." Digital Transfer by F. Reeder.

1929 Part I : Adoration of the Eath

I'm unable to embed part II the sacrifice but you may visit this page to hear the entire record

Next, Recorded in 1940. Columbia Masterworks 78rpm Album MM 417.New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Digital transfer by F. Reeder

Part I: Adoration of the Earth

Again to hear the entire recording visit

The third recording of Le Sacre du Printemps is Conducted by Sir Georg Solti & leading the Chicago the Symphony Orchestra for London/Decca in 1974 - Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately you will have to buy this recording to hear it.
"Solti - A Passion For Music" Sir Georg Solti & Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The first thing you notice about the two early recordings is a difference in tempo and dynamics. The 1929 recording is slower on the fast sections and faster on the slow sections in comparison to the 1940 recording. Essentially the tempi are more consistent in the 1929 recording and this is also a characteristic of the dynamics. I observed over the span of the three recordings that the later the date the wider the spectrum of dynamics and tempo. There are some exceptions. For example, the 1974 recording of part II the Sacrifice is slow enough in the slow sections to make up for the speedier parts which results in a longer play time for the entire second part.
It's fair to say that in general, the more modern the recording and the conductor, the greater range of tempo. Even Stravinsky himself demonstrates this as the 1940 recording shows much wider range of tempi than his 1929 performance.
Trying hard to listen past the recording quality, there are some marked differences in orchestration as well. In the fourth movement of part II Ritual of the Ancestors, Solti uses tambourine which is totally absent in the two previous recordings. Another change in orchestration occurs in both the 1940 recording by Stravinsky and by Solti. Strings play pizzicato on the second movement of part I but in the 1929 recording the orchestra bows the notes. I am reminded of Stravinky's words in a letter to his editor.

“...for the "Sacrificial Dance," it was decided to delete the pizzicati, and they were in fact eliminated, but not completely, as I notice that some still survive in the score after 192 . . . . But what bothers me the most are these pizzicati in the entire "Sacrificial Dance." They were deleted as a matter of principle: we were being rushed, there were few string players available, and even these were below average; we had enough trouble in coping with the rhythmic complexities alone. But now I am seriously wondering if we do right in sticking to that decision. After all, some day we'll be blessed with better performers and performing conditions. In that case, wouldn't writing the strings [alternately] unisono pizz . and divisi arco be the better solution? And won't the dryness of pizz. strings accompanying the oboes provide a more concise and clear-cut rhythm than any bowing ever could? Perpetual arco bowing seems to me (but I am only at the conductor's stand) to produce a sound that is constantly thick and undifferentiated, whereas intervening pizz. would provide clarity and definite contours to the music.” (Cyr, Louis p.157)

There are a few other spots in the 1929 recording where Stravinsky chooses bowed notes over pizzicato.The effect of the bowed version is a slightly thicker sound that moves the strings part lower in relief to the rest to the sound scape and creates less depth overall. Another moment that is different in all three versions are the last notes of the final movement the Sacrificial Dance which is a sound reference to the virgins death and collapse.
In all three recordings their were differences in timing and horizontal interpretation. That is to say, although Stravinsky indicated that the final notes were to be played all together (non divisi) neither he nor Solti did so. The import of the staggered notes is to create an aftershock of the girls body hitting the ground giving her a slight bounce rather than a thud.


Cyr, Louis: Writing The rite right. (Berkeley: U. California, 1986) 157 -73.

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.

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