The Rite of Spring: The Untold Story

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Nicholas Roerich, Set Design for Rite of Spring: Ritual Circle

Nicholas Roerich, Set Design for Rite of Spring: Ritual Circle

Just in time for the celebrations marking the centenary of the first performance of The Rite of Spring, in Paris on May 29, 1913, a cylinder recording has turned up in a storeroom at the Hotel du Prince in Geneva. Probably unplayed for a century, it preserves with astonishing clarity a discussion involving the scenarist NICOLAS ROERICH, the impresario SERGE DIAGHILEV, the dancer-choreographer VASLAV NIJINSKY, and the work’s composer.

ROERICH:

…and then one of the elders comes out from the group and we realize that he is the shaman of the tribe and at this point —

DIAGHILEV:

Shaman?

ROERICH:

Yes, and at this point he looks up —

DIAGHILEV:

Shaman is what, exactly?

ROERICH:

He’s the priest, if you like, the intermediary between our little world of mere human beings and the vast realm of spirits and gods and probably natural essences, like water, or tree, or —

DIAGHILEV:

Go on.

ROERICH:

I got this from an actual shaman I met one time when I was traveling to the north of Irkutsk – extraordinary fellow, he must have been fully ninety, and he had on this strange headdress —

DIAGHILEV:

He looks up.

ROERICH:

No, he held me in his gaze, and his eyes were startlingly clear, despite —

DIAGHILEV:

In the ballet he looks up.

ROERICH:

Oh, in the ballet, yes, in the ballet he looks up, and he starts to make these extraordinary movements —

NIJINSKY:

What movements?

DIAGHILEV:

Quiet, Slava.

NIJINSKY:

He spoke about movements!

DIAGHILEV:

 Quiet, Slava. Go on, Nikolay Konstantinovich.

ROERICH:

He starts to make these —

DIAGHILEV:

By the way, where is our dear composer? (Silence.)
Why is it composers never know the time? (Silence.)
Go on, Nikolay Konstantinovich.

ROERICH:

He starts to make —

DIAGHILEV:

She.

ROERICH:

I said “he.”

DIAGHILEV:

She. This is a woman’s role. Go on.

ROERICH:

She starts to make these extraordinary —

STRAVINSKY (bursting in): 

Sergey Pavlovich, forgive me. Slava. Nikolay Konstantinovich. I was lunching with La Polignac and you know how she simply gobbles up one’s time.

DIAGHILEV:

And, I hope, pays you substantially for it.

STRAVINSKY:

Anyway, where were we?

DIAGHILEV:

We were discussing how this woman —

STRAVINSKY:

What woman?

DIAGHILEV:

The priestess, or something —

ROERICH:

Shaman.

DIAGHILEV:

Whatever, how she…. What was it she does, Nikolay Konstantinovich?

ROERICH:

She is divining, with twigs.

DIAGHILEV:

Twigs.

ROERICH:

Yes, twigs.

DIAGHILEV:

Go on.

ROERICH:

It was a practice our ancestors inherited from the ancient Scythians —

STRAVINSKY:

If I may interpose, Sergey Pavlovich, the whole function of this episode is rhythmic. It’s a matter of how to interrelate a steady pulse – with changing accents, of course – and sporadic figures in a faster tempo, when —

DIAGHILEV:

Play it for us, Igor Fyodorovich. Play it for us.

STRAVINSKY:

Of course.

STRAVINSKY starts to play the “Augurs of Spring” from his score. After thirty seconds DIAGHILEV interrupts him and he stops mid-measure.

DIAGHILEV:

Tell me, Igor Fyodorovich, does it go on for long like this?

STRAVINSKY:

Just as far as the mass abduction, my dear. Shall I ring for tea?

About the author

Paul Griffiths

Paul Griffiths’s reviews and articles have appeared extensively in both Britain (Times, Financial Times, Times Literary Supplement) and the United States (New Yorker, New York Times). He has written numerous books on Bartók, Cage, Messiaen, Boulez, Maxwell Davies, twentieth-century music, opera, and the string quartet, and is the author of the recent Penguin Companion to Classical Music. He is also author of The Sea on Fire: Jean Barraqué. He has written the libretto for Tan Dun’s Marco Polo and Elliott Carter’s What Next? as well as several novels, Myself and Marco Polo, The Lay of Sir Tristram, and Let Me Tell You.

Readers Comments (4)

  1. AvatarPaula Robison May 29, 2013 @ 19:27

    This is absolutely WONDERFUL!!!

  2. So that’s how it happened! Thanks, Mr. Griffiths, for this perfectly timed revelation….

  3. I only wish one of them had had a camera and had snapped a few pictures at the moment, but there was no reason why any of them should have been prepared.

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