Thoughts on Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring“

by Süher Pekinel

Since I listened to it the very first time, the rhythmically dynamic content of “Le Sacre du Printemps”, has not only shocked my soul and intellect, but also it has taken me on an endless trip of the depths of this music.

My research of the work’s story brought me many surprises. Stravinsky used to take ideas from his intellectual friends while choosing his themes. One of them, the Russian painter and ethnologist Nicolas Roerich, travelled in India and Tibet for 18 years, examined the past of pagan tribes, and presented seminars on Buddhism, philosophy and music at the Varanasi University in India. In fact, when I visited the Music School of Varanasi University myself some years ago, I saw a gallery bearing his name, exhibiting a number of pictures he painted on the mountains of Tibet.

Before beginning to compose Le Sacre du Printemps, Stravinsky was apparently interested in the rituals of pagan tribes and contacted Roerich to ask for detailed information about them. In fact „Le Sacre du Printemps“ was sub-titled „Tableaux de la Russie paienne en deux parties“ (Scenes from pagan Russia in two parts), and described as a Rite of Spring represented in music.

We also know that Roerich lead researches on various cultures of Central Asia. Shamanism, as a branch of that culture, has its geographic roots reaching as far as the Yakut Turks of Siberia, from where it possibly spread to Russia and up to Finland. It seems natural to me that Stravinsky as a composer and Roerich as a painter and researcher, both of Russian origin, might have been under the influence of this culture. Later on, I visited a small museum reflecting the life and thoughts of Roerich in New York, and found an opportunity to review this influence from its varying aspects.

Who are the Shamans?

In Shamanism, a shaman (called „kam“ by ancient Turkish tribes) is believed to have the power of acting as an intermediary between Gods and Spirits. The Shamanic ritual is therefore based on „ecstasy“. It was precisely that factor of „trance and ecstasy“ inherent in Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps which took me to Shamanism.

Furthermore, I also found out that the same shamanistic influences, mixed with contributions from Hinduism and Buddhism philosophies and rituals, were linked to the formation of mysticism (the tasavvuf) in the Turkish-Islamic culture, especially through Sufism. I noticed that the influence of shamanism on tariqas had begun with the Tariqa of Yasevi founded by Ahmet Yasevi in the 12th Century, and influenced the Dervish tradition considerably, especially the symbols and rituals of such different sects and tariqas as Kalenderi, Haydari, Bektashi and Toriaks.

The „Rite of Spring“ on the other hand, was observed not only in pagan Russia, but also in the beliefs and traditions of the peoples of Central Asia, Iran, Mesopotamia, Anatolia and even Greek Orthodox peoples. The religious festivals of Hidrellez in the Turkish-Islamic tribes, the Nevruz of the Persian Zoroastrians, Tammuz of the ancient Mesopotamian tribes, and St. George of the Greek and Balkan Orthodox peoples all share the same roots and are celebrated as a „Rite of Spring“ (Ahmet Yaşar Ocak, İslam Türk inançlarında Hızır yahut Hızır – İlyas Kültü, Turkish Culture Research Institute, 1999). It is also known that the shaman Yakuts performed a rite of spring throughout centuries. The Altaic shamanistic tribes performed this rite for the Celestial God (Uno Harva, Les representations religieuses des poeuples Altaiques, Paris 1959, p.377). When plants blossomed, people would sit under green trees, sacrifice horses, sheep or oxes, hang their skins on the temple walls, then gather around in the form of a circle to drink kumiss and to jump over a bonfire.

In fact, when we played our own two piano version of „Le Sacre du Printemps“ years ago in Geneva with The Zurich Ballet Group choreographed by Nijinski, the ballet dancers wore ox skins and danced in the a circle around a fire. The „Sacred Dance“ was choreographed in a similar way.

Adventures experienced by shamans in the realm of spirits are closely related to music. There is a direct interaction especially between the repetitive rhythmic continuity created by percussion and the state of trance. Therefore, the drum is the most popular instrument in almost all regions where shamanism is dominant. Melody plays also a significant role in shamanistic tunes, because it identifies, by way of singing, the individual spirits called by the Shaman. It thus forms a kind of ‘’signature’’ for every individual spirit (Piers Vitebsky, The Shaman, London: Little, Brown and Company, 1995). In fact, the introductory tune to Le Sacre du Printemps comes from a well-known Balkan folk song. The music plays nature’s colours by means of juxtaposition of melodies, and enters a state of concentration thanks to the dynamic process created by counterpointed rhythms.

Generally speaking, the interaction of different cultures is noticeable in the structures of music and dance underlying their rituals. In my opinion, many elements of such structure in the rituals of above mentioned peoples resemble the musical characteristics of „Le Sacre du Printemps“. While the rhythm turns to melody and vice versa, the work’s apparent elements cause the rhythm to progress in a minimalist form, to gain speed gradually, to be drifted to ecstasy and to develop into trance as the music reaches its highest speed before exploding (for instance, time signatures change to 5/8, 9/8, 7/8, 2/16 and 3/16 in very short intervals in the „Dance of the Earth“ and „Sacred Dance of the Maiden“). I observed the same process in the music and dances of Cerrahi Tariqa and Sema.

All these strikingly common features show me clearly how much music fulfils a function of acting as a deep mirror uniting different cultures. I hope music lovers who read my foregoing comments and analysis would listen to the work from a brand new perspective closer to what I believe to be Stavinsky’s global understanding.