Stravinsky’s bizarre rhythms & contrasts

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was one of my favorite pieces of music before Music Hum, but now that this class has given me a more discerning ear, I can better verbalize two things about this piece that, I think, make it so amazing.

The first is Stravinsky’s use of rhythm. While most previous composers employed consistent meters–consistently grouping notes into 2’s or 3’s–Stravinsky constantly changes how he organizes notes together by accenting different notes. The result is plenty of strange rhythms, maybe something like: 1-2/1-2/1-2-3/1-2/1-2/1-2-3/1-2. As an example, when the dancing first begins and the orchestra plays a driving rhythm, the accent changes frequently (4:00-4:15), creating a jarring affect that adds to the dissonant chord underneath. As another example, when the sacrificial dancer is chosen and the girls dance around her (23:38-24:05, 24:46-25:04, 24:25-24:40), the dancers jump irregularly, since the beats between the jumps vary. The same thing happens when the sacrificial girl is dancing to death (29:30-30:00, 31:33-32:00). Not only are these weird rhythmic patterns inventive and fascinating to hear, but they add to the frenzy and hysteria of the celebration that the dancers are portraying.

Second, Stravinsky has a lot of interesting melodic contrasts. Sometimes, he achieves this through changing instruments: when the dancing first starts, the strings play a dissonant chord with a steady, driving rhythm (4:00-4:08, 4:10-4:20, 4:31-4:40), which is interrupted by higher-pitched, playful-sounding melodies from the woodwinds (4:08-4:10, 4:20-4:31, 4:40-4:43). Alternatively, he changes the pitch and overall affect: from 8:42-9:15, the strings and lower woodwinds play a foreboding–and much slower and rhythmically regular–melody, which is interrupted by a comparatively sweeter melody in the higher woodwinds & strings. Again, not only are these extreme contrasts interesting to listen to, but they make the world onstage seem even more mythic and fascinating. Thus, with all of its creative rhythms and contrasts, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring not only broke musical ground, but it vividly portrays a myth about a frenzied and deadly ritual.

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