The Rite at 100

My favourite Christmas present (sorry mother - my pullover is great but...) was a 100th anniversary collection of thirty eight recordings (over sixty years) of Stravinsky's seminal composition (and as an 'extra' the Violin concerto under the baton of the composer himself).

This was the first piece of music I genuinely 'heard' as a seventeen year old sitting in a musical appreciation class. I went and purchased the record (a recording regretfully not included in the anniversary set) and listened to it repeatedly (so much so that my father came into my brother's room, where in his absence, I was using his record player and gave me a £5 note to 'buy another record')! Thankfully it was not at a moment when I was 'dancing' to the recording, letting the music speak in every tendon of my being (in this case literally)! That would have been too embarrassing...

It is a difficult piece to think about as it is so bound up with an entrance into a previously unknown space yet such thinking is inevitable.

It is a marker for the century that followed. It captures a world that was to mistake energy for transformation. I am reading Maurice Friedman's biography of Martin Buber, that stands for me as the exemplary intellectual biography, it is extraordinarily rich, and I have reached the First World War. Originally Buber embraced this as a moment of real decision and change, caught up in the release of that moment to imagine all kinds of possibilities, most especially for the liberation of Eastern Jewry, and slowly comes to the realisation that energy (and sacrifice) does not equate with genuine transformation. It is striking how many intellectuals fell under the same spell (and many did not awake).

In the Rite, there is that sense of an energy awakened, given a sacrificial form, and yet one that does not ultimately transform. You see a sensitive antennae of the age display forth a paradox - the necessity of energetic celebration and yet its failure to allow for a genuine breakthrough. The Rite is an alluring tragedy. Subsequently Stravinsky is to become something yet other - trying to see how to give energy a greater purity of form, that necessarily requires restraint yet avoiding constraint. It is the narrow ridge between two competing forces - energy and constraint - how can we be enthused without losing our responsibility to ourselves and our community?

It is a challenge under whose sign we still live.

My second record was Holst's 'The Planets', (written between 1914 - 1916), and, I think, the sketch for a compelling answering activity towards Stravinsky (not that I would have thought of this at the time). They are a recognition of the complexity of the soul's forces - an invitation to honour yet bind that complexity - anything that becomes 'the' force (or answer) is likely to be both an 'energy' and a 'constraint' too far. The invitation for a full life is one for an awareness of the diversity of ourselves and an honouring of that otherness both in our self and in others. It is an invitation towards a life of (to use Buber's phrase) 'holy insecurity'.

Stravinsky in the Rite focuses on the energy needed for transformation yet its form - the sacrifice of the maiden - a placing of responsibility outside ourself, a surrendering, is following an always attractive but flawed path, one that was to dominate the subsequent century. Holst's invitation is subtler - to self-understanding - and, thus, a more difficult invitation (one that Stravinsky too subsequently embraced).

In adolescence there is always the excitement of complete self-surrender - it is a necessary one - and yet one that, as you grow older, needs a different light shed on it. The tragedy of the twentieth century was that so many stuck with the surrender to the other, the energy of change even if that energy was wholly dark.


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