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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:
[Taped 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:
[EG 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:
[EG illustrates on piano].
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:
[EG piano illustration].
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.
[Taped 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.
[Taped 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:
[Taped 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:
[EG piano example].
In "The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict," from Self and World , Eli Siegel writes:
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:
[Taped 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 .