Edward Green
Composer, Musicologist & Aesthetic realism Associate

Aesthetic Realism Foundation,


Manhattan School of Music

On the Rhythm of “The Rite of Spring”
by Edward Green
I believe that after centuries of thought on the subject, rhythm, in its full meaning, as been described for the first time by Eli Siegel. I learned from Aesthetic Realism that rhythm is a oneness of opposites, and that the opposites which are in rhythm, and which make it beautiful, are also in me and in every person, and that we need to make them one. I am grateful to Eli Siegel for showing me that I can learn from the very art I practice how to have a beautiful and kind life. The study of rhythm, Mr. Siegel shows, is an education both in beauty and in good sense.

As much as any composer in the history of music, Igor Stravinsky stands for what rhythm can do. And of his compositions, the one seen as having the most powerful and most subtle of rhythms is his l9l3 ballet score, The Rite of Spring.

In a class of February 23, l966, Eli Siegel explained that "rhythm begins with sound as accented and unaccented." And he added, "Anything that seems to be given more insistence than something else in the field of sound is the beat aspect of that sound. Beat is what stands out." A simple example of this is 3/4 time, where there is a steady pulse which receives an accent regularly, every three counts: [EG demonstrates by clapping]

One of the most famous places in The Rite of Spring is the music for the dance that follows the rise of the curtain in Act I, "The Dance of the Adolescents." Stravinsky uses the idea of a steady pulse, but instead of accenting that pulse in regular units, as in 3/4 time, he accents it in a way that has astonishing and tremendous syncopation. On first hearing it almost seems wild. Here it is, with Igor Stravinsky himself conducting: 

[recorded example # 1]

Technically this is what Stravinsky does: he begins with a series of identical chords in the strings--32 chords in all--moving in a strict and steady rhythm of eighth notes. To his series of chords he brings six sharp accents, produced by the sudden sound of eight French horns. But the accents divide the 32 pulses not into any regular or predictable pattern, but into the highly irregular pattern of 9 2 6 3 4 5 and 3 counts. To get a clearer sense of this, I'll play this passage now on the piano, first slowly--with the groups counted out--and then at Stravinsky's original tempo:

[piano examples]

Syncopation is, essentially, sound being accented when you don't expect it to be accented. it is, Eli Siegel said in that class of l966, "contradiction, and also a kind of inner rebellion."

The desire to be contradictory, to be rebellious, is in people. It has a good side, which is not to accept ugliness, but to be honestly critical. It also has a bad side, which Eli Siegel showed me was very much a problem in my life--the desire to rebel against anything that had too much meaning for me because I associated freedom with being able to remain separate and superior to the world. That kind of rebelliousness is contempt, and it is ugly and is against life.

Now the question facing a composer as he works with sound and writes in an intricate, syncopated way--as Stravinsky does--is like the ethical question we have when we feel rebellious. The question is one of purpose--"Why do you want to contradict this thing? Is it good for that thing to be contradicted? Will rebelling against it help your life?"

I think what impelled Stravinsky here, and throughout The Rite of Spring, to use syncopation so intensely and so constantly was a deep, kind, organic desire to contradict the pain of dissonance with the energy of rhythm.

In the note to his poem, "The World of the Unwashed Dish," Eli Siegel writes: "The undesirable, made speedy, seems to be different." Of itself, the chord Stravinsky reiterates 32 times is exceedingly painful: 

[piano examples]

It does seem to represent, in sound, a world that is undesirable--thick with impediment. Had Stravinsky accented that series of chords in a regular way, say every four counts, it would have sounded like this: 

[piano examples].

Without the syncopation of the original version, without its surprise and its speed, what we are most conscious of is the ugliness of that chord. But when that chord is gone at syncopatedly, and is therefore contradicted, the feeling we get is so different. It no longer seems to represent a world bogged down in pain, but, on the contrary, a world with exhilaration in it, and a feeling of release, of freedom. The surprise in the syncopation makes for speed, and the speed does make the undesirable seem different. This is contradiction in behalf of finding the world likeable. It has a beautiful purpose.
Listen now to a longer section from The Rite of Spring, incorporating this chord, and those syncopations:

[recorded example #2]

In his essay "The Aesthetic Center," Eli Siegel writes: "Rhythm is any instance of change and sameness seen at once." What we have just heard is a true exemplification of that great statement.

Now rhythm, like any other element in music, can be both assertive and muted, and used rightly both ways are beautiful. In our first example, Stravinsky went for an intensified sense of accent. In our next example he does just the opposite--he suppresses our sense of accent. Strong and weak are still here, but listen to how close they have become to each other, how hard it is to distinguish them: 

[recorded example #3] 

What we've just heard is the very opening of The Rite of Spring . This is the music before the curtain rises, evoking the beginnings of Spring--and the melody is played high in the bassoon, in a register of that instrument which makes the sound seem both impinging and remote, both strained and quiet. 

Where our first example had angles and edges, this example, with its muted sense of the beat, is more fluid and even, at times, seems slippery. We feel sameness and change--we feel rhythm--but how differently the world is present in this, the more subtle type of rhythm. 

What Stravinsky does here, making sure that no great or jarring differences of strong and weak are heard in the sounds, is deeply akin to how rhythm is in the Gregorian Chant, and may have been influenced by it. To show what I mean, here is an instance of Gregorian Chant. Listen for the subtlety of strong and weak sound: 

[recorded example #4] 

Had Stravinsky treated the fluid bassoon melody as he treated the intense music we heard earlier--with a clear-cut, definite sense of strong and weak--the result might have sounded like this: 

[piano example]

In "The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict," from Self and World , Eli Siegel writes: 

An aspect of rhythm, or of form in time, is the feeling of speed in slowness, slowness in speed. When music is good, there is a sense of motion and of pause.

Comparing the two versions of this melody, the more subtly rhythmic one--Stravinsky's original, and the second, more obviously rhythmic one, we can ask: which is more beautiful? Which has more of a oneness of speed and slowness, of motion and of pause? I think the first does, clearly. The surprising thing is, Stravinsky actually began with the second, rhythmically more blatant, version and then transformed it. Eric Walter White writes in his book Stravinsky: The Composer and his Works

the opening [bassoon] melody...he borrowed from a collection of Lithuanian folk music.

"The purpose of an artist," Eli Siegel told me in the first class I ever attended with him, on July 2, l974, "is to get an arrangement of sounds in such a way that the possibility of reality as both ordinary and surprising is shown." By itself that folk song is likable, but as Stravinsky altered it, making the ordinary more surprising, as he stretched it out and made it more limber, how he deepened it! Through his great rhythmic imagination he brought out its possibility of expressing a large emotion, a sense of the hauntingness, the mystery of reality. 

So far we have looked at rhythm in The Rite of Spring through two short examples. For our last example, I'd like to look at "The Glorification of the Chosen One," a complete dance from Act II. In the class of February 23, l966, Eli Siegel said: 

As you hear sound you either get what you expect or you don't; but since happiness is getting both what you expeirct and what you don't, the best rhythms have both.

What Mr. Siegel says here about rhythm can be seen very clearly in this dance. As we'll hear, it is very economical: it repeats two motions over and over again. It begins by pounding the ground with an 11-fold repetition of a chord, and then it contradicts that heaviness by flying up, suddenly, into the air. These, in essence, are its two motions: a treading in place, and a sudden burst of change. But even as you come to expect these two motions, and their alternation, the way Stravinsky composes it, you can never quite say just when that alternation will take place. Listen now to this dance from Act II: 

[recorded example #5] 

For all its hard-bitten quality, for all its fierceness, its upheaval, its sense of the world as being in tumult--I think the rhythm of this music has what Eli Siegel says we need for happiness: the sense of what we expect and what we don't expect at once. I think it is very beautiful, and I think the beauty here, as elsewhere in The Rite of Spring , has a very large meaning, for it is a beauty presented within dissonance. 

To see meaning in the world when the world seems harsh and forbidding is never easy, but have learned from Aesthetic Realism that it is necessary. It is not enough just to "approve of" the world when it presents itself to us as nice. Stravinsky, throughout The Rite of Spring, gives powerful, rhythmic evidence that even in the shrieks, the thuds, the howls of the world, beauty can be found because the Opposites can be felt. 

Stravinsky was one of the most consciously philosophic of composers, and there is a statement of his, from his book, The Poetics of Music , that is beautiful. Stravinsky writes: "Music to me is a power which justifies things." 

How music shows that the world can be liked is what I and others have been so fortunate to be studying in Aesthetic Realism classes. The Opposites are the justification of things. They are the power Stravinsky felt, the power he so beautifully uses in The Rite of Spring

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