well if you run in my circles, and you being here might suggest just that, then you probably know that today is the 100th birthday of Stravinsky’s *Le sacre du printemps*, or *The Rite of Spring*. sure, the lore is filled with apocryphal stories of riots, chaos, and confusion; counting beats and steps from offstage and telling those bitches in the deuxième ètage to shut up — we love telling this and other apocrypha to our students. whether it’s showing the Joffrey Ballet performance or doing a little performing of our own, this is the way that many of us try to relate this so-called entry into modern music. and let me tell you, those have been fun moments…
watching my students clap the opening rhythms at the beginning of the Adoration of the Earth has never failed at being HILARIOUS.
…but for me. at the heart of me, i’ve always related to Rite differently from musicologist me. because at the end of the day, no matter what i do, i’ll always be a bassoonist and let’s face it, my first *real* introduction to the piece was this way.
this isn’t really about the solo. and what i mean is, it’s not about what the solo is as an excerpt. it’s more about how that solo has figured into our understanding of what the piece is and what it means. somewhere along the way, the Rite got hyped. and that solo, in my opinion, is the most overly-hyped solo in history. why? because its worth as an excerpt has very little real world value.
i found myself ruminating over this last night. it seems like the one thing people have asked me countless times is to play the Rite solo: “oh, do you know the Rite solo?,” “have you played the Rite solo?,” “is the Rite solo hard?,” followed by some sort of vocal interpretation to me as to how the solo should go. did i know the solo when i was 14? yes. could i play it? not really. but it didn’t matter. i had been playing the bassoon for three years at this point and nothing struck fear into my heart more than that solo. i mean who were these people who knew NOTHING ELSE about the bassoon who were asking me about this? and why did they care so very much?
when i got to college, and more specifically, when i got to graduate school, my feelings about the solo changed drastically. for me, the solo had no currency. orchestras rarely play the piece and they rarely ask for it in auditions. and it seemed like no matter how i played it, i was playing it incorrectly even if the way to play it was not fixed. (yes, the solo has to be played rhythmically and those note values have to be correct but where you place them in space is another matter) — but there it was, staring us in the face, demanding to be learned.
so i learned it.
i even played it at an orchestral audition (which was probably the most worthless endeavour i have ever embarked upon) and i felt nothing.
i felt in that moment that i learned the solo for the same reasons that i had to teach the piece in Music Hum: it’s one of those things that has to be learned because it’s a signpost. and this seems to be accepted among bassoonists with whom i speak. just like musicology, other facets of music has their own canons but when it’s one that’s so incredibly tiny, like that of bassoon solo/orchestral rep, we glom on to the things that elevate us, that give us recognition and seeming purpose.
but there are other solos. solos that came before and came after the Rite solo. solos that are FAR more important. i’ve had a chance to play a few of them: Ravel’s *Alborada del gracioso*, the solos in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies, the solos in Beethoven’s Third and Fifth symphonies, the contra solo in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, Bartok’s *Concerto for Orchestra*, Berlioz’s *Symphonie fantastique*…and let me tell you, they’ve been game changers (especially the Ravel); these are excerpts i practiced for days, solos i’ve sweat over, solos i’ve played in auditions, solos that matter.
and it’s in those moments, when i’ve heard those solos played brilliantly, that i forget about all the stupid things people say about the instrument, how amazing it is and how talented and musical those performers are. the Rite solo has its flickers but it burns cold.
so let’s remember, that solo didn’t come to Stravinsky in a dream. he found the melody in a book of folksongs. and nowadays, high Ds are pretty standard (as are high Es and even, sometimes, high Fs –– if you’re French); the solo is showing its age and a little of its novelty.
so yes, our students should learn it. it’s worth learning. and students should feel good when they’re able to play it (especially when they can master their own take on the fluidity of it) but it is not the end all be all. the same for Rite itself. regardless of how you feel about the piece, it is important. that’s why we’re talking about it today. and people should learn about it, hear it, see it, experience it. but all music didn’t end or begin once this piece was premiered and maybe we should remember **that**, too.