Wednesday, May 29, 2013

MAY 29 = Stravinsky Causes a RIOT 100 Years Ago Today

To all of my "Today in History" readers:

I had originally planned on posting nothing regarding today's anniversary of the Paris Premiere performance of Igor Stravinsky's revolutionary ballet "The Rite of Spring".  I had already chosen the conquest of Mt. Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as being the most important event to have taken place today, and written a posting about it.  And I think that I was right about that choice.  Nevertheless, Stravinsky's music for this ballet, and indeed the ballet itself and the sets for it.. really everything connected with "the Rite of Spring" are VERY important.  And when I was reminded by my beautiful and highly talented one-time colleague, the Scot's percussionist Lisa Nicol that today was in fact the 100'th Anniversary of this fascinating work, I just HAD to post something.  Unfortunately, I hadn't the time to write a proper posting myself.  SO I am posting this very well written article by Tom Service of the London Guardian in place of my own work... although I hope to post something of my own soon.   - B.T. Bolten, 4/29/13.

The Rite of Spring: "The work of a madman??"

It is one of the great works of the 20th century, a ballet so revolutionary it is said to have caused a riot at its premiere. But is Stravinsky's Rite of Spring all it was claimed to be? As the work's centenary is celebrated, Tom Service separates fact from fiction

Tom Service
The Guardian, Tuesday 12 February 2013 

The most influential piece of 20th-century music … a 2002 version of The Rite Of Spring by Ballet Preljocaj. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

'Mild protests against the music," wrote Stravinsky, "could be heard from the beginning." The composer was remembering the night of 29 May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. The event was the premiere of a new ballet called The Rite of Spring – and, if you believe all the stories about what happened that celebrated evening, not least the one about the riot that ensued, it's as if the 20th century only really got going when the audience in that gilded art-nouveau auditorium started kicking off.

If you know how Stravinsky's music begins, you may not be too surprised by the audience's reaction to The Rite, which was choreographed by the young dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and performed by Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. After the strangest, highest and most terrifyingly exposed bassoon solo ever to open an orchestral work, the music becomes a sinewy braid of teeming, complex woodwind lines. "Then," Stravinsky told his biographer, "when the curtain opened on the group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down, the storm broke."

                          The ‘knock-kneed’ Lolitas of the original Rite of Spring

That was Nijinsky's choreography for the Dance of the Adolescents section, the music's first and still-shocking moment of crunching dissonance and skewed rhythm. Stravinsky said that at this point, "Cries of 'Ta gueule' [shut up] came from behind me. I left the hall in a rage. I have never again been that angry." Stravinsky spent the rest of the performance in the wings, holding on to Nijinksy's tails as the choreographer shouted out cues to his dancers over the din.

What really happened on that night of nights? Was this a genuine riot, as it is so often described – a shocked response to Stravinsky's simultaneously primitivist and modernist depiction of an ancient Russian ritual devoted to the seasons? Or was it simply a publicity stunt, a wilfully orchestrated succès de scandale that has, in the years and the retelling, grown into a great musical myth? And was The Rite really such a revolution in music, a gigantic leap of faith into a terra incognita that would inspire every subsequent composer?

There is still no more influential piece of music in the 20th century. The Rite is the work that invariably tops polls of the biggest and baddest of the last 100 years. From Elliott Carter to Pierre Boulez, from Steve Reich to Thomas Adès, other composers couldn't have done what they did without it as inspiration. Talking many years after its composition, Stravinsky claimed he had to put himself in a kind of creative trance to compose it, an echo of the fate that befalls the poor girl who dances herself to death in the ballet's climactic Sacrificial Dance: "Very little immediate tradition lies behind The Rite of Spring – and no theory. I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which The Rite passed."

      Part of Nicholas Roerich's designs for Diaghilev's 1913 production of Le Sacre du printemps

Let's deal with the riot first. For all the "heavy noises" and shouts Stravinsky says came from the auditorium, there is no evidence of mass brawling, and nobody tried to attack the dancers (although the conductor Pierre Monteux remembered that "everything available was tossed in our direction"). One critic described the whole thing as merely a "rowdy debate" between rival factions in the audience. And if the boos and hisses had been so appalling, why would Diaghilev have been as pleased as Stravinsky says he was? "After the performance," he noted, "we were excited, disgusted, and … happy. I went with Diaghilev and Nijinsky to a restaurant. Diaghilev's only comment was, 'Exactly what I wanted.' Quite probably, he had already thought about the possibility of such a scandal when I first played him the score, months before."

It would certainly be an exaggeration to say the whole thing was engineered as a publicity stunt. But how to explain the fact that the audience was protesting right from the start about something they hadn't properly heard yet? Significantly, when the score was performed in Paris for the first time as a concert piece just a year later, there were huge ovations, with Stravinsky carried on the (above: Stravinsky, circa 1913.) shoulders of his fans in  triumph.

It was, it seems, the willful ugliness and lumpenness of Nijinsky's evocation of Russian prehistory that was really shocking to audiences – the "knock-kneed Lolitas" Stravinsky wrote of. The dance offended their sense of beauty and their vision of what a ballet should be, as much as if not more than the music. Anyway, at the premiere, the radicalism of Stravinsky's score could hardly be heard for cat-calls, although some reports suggest the boos had calmed down before the climax. Stravinsky had great praise for Monteux's cool head, calling the conductor as "impervious and as nerveless as a crocodile". He added: "It is still almost incredible to me that he actually brought the orchestra through to the end."

The paradox of the primitivism in The Rite is that it can be heard as both a horrifying vision of the pitilessness of nature – and as an expression of the inhumanity of the machine age. The fate of the "chosen one" in the Sacrificial Dance is particularly chilling. She is caught in an unstoppable rhythmic vortex from which there is only one way out: through the terrible dissonance that ends the piece, and the single chord that kills her. 
This is music that manages to sound both mechanistic and elemental, making The Rite as radical in 2013 as it was 100 years ago.
                             Above : Vaclev Nijinsky

Still, for all its modernity, for all Stravinsky's insistence that the whole thing came from "what I heard" (and for all that Puccini would later call it "the work of a madman"), The Rite is rooted in musical traditions. As Bela Bartók intuited, and as musicologist Richard Taruskin has shown, many of The Rite's melodies come from folk tunes – including that opening bassoon solo, which is actually a Lithuanian wedding song. Scholars have identified more than a dozen folk references so far, but there's an even more significant tradition behind The Rite.

The work is the apotheosis of a way of thinking about music that began in the 1830s with Mikhail Glinka, the first important Russian composer, and an inspiration to Stravinsky, whose music he loved. The way The Rite moves, with its blocks of music juxtaposed next to and on top of one another like a mosaic, is prefigured not just by Stravinsky's previous ballets for Diaghilev (The Firebird and Petrushka), but in music by his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov and even Tchaikovsky. Those "new" sounds with all those dagger-like dissonances? If you look at them closely, you'll find they're all versions either of common chords stacked up on top of each other, or are built from the scales and harmonies that Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Debussy had already discovered. And all those jerky, jolting rhythms? They're derived, albeit distantly, from the way some of those folk tunes work.

So there's nothing so old as a musical revolution. But even if it's true that Stravinsky plundered traditions both ancient and modern to create The Rite, there's something that, finally, can't be explained away, something you should feel in your gut when you experience the piece. A century on, the truly shocking thing about The Rite is still with us, right there at its climax. A good performance will merely pulverize you. But a great one will make you feel that it's you – that it's all of us – being sacrificed by Stravinsky's spellbinding and savagely cruel music.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

SPECIAL: Signs of Cannibalism Found at Colonial Jamestown

The following article appeared in the May 1, 2013 Edition of the New York Times. The entire article is reproduced below, but the original can be found at:

Archaeologists excavating a trash pit at the Jamestown colony site in Virginia have found the first physical evidence of cannibalism among the desperate population, corroborating written accounts left behind by witnesses. Cut marks on the skull and skeleton of a 14-year-old girl show that her flesh and brain were removed, presumably to be eaten by the starving colonists during the harsh winter of 1609.

The remains were excavated by archaeologists led by William Kelso of Preservation Virginia, a private nonprofit group, and analyzed by Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. The skull bears tentative cuts to the forehead, followed by four strikes to the back of the head, one of which split the skull open, according to an article in Smithsonian magazine, where the find was reported Wednesday.
It is unclear how the girl died, but she was almost certainly dead and buried before her remains were butchered. According to a letter written in 1625 by George Percy, president of Jamestown during the starvation period, the famine was so intense “thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe (Above: a facial reconstruction of girl) the those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them.” Five other historical accounts refer to cannibalism during the Jamestown siege.

The girl’s remains were discovered last summer in a refuse dump containing horse and dog bones. From the state of her molars, she is judged to have been 14 years old. Isotopes in her bones indicate that she had eaten a high-protein diet, so she was probably not a maidservant but the daughter of a gentleman.

Dr. Owsley said in an interview that he could tell she was English because of his familiarity with English skeletal remains of the 17th century and from scientific tests. The ratio of oxygen isotopes in her bones indicated that she had grown up in the southern coastal regions of England, Dr. Owsley said, and the 
(above: A microscopic image shows sharp cuts to her jaw) 
carbon isotopes pointed to a diet that included English rye and barley.

James Horn, a historian with the colonial Williamsburg Foundation, said at a news conference on Wednesday that the young woman probably had arrived on one of the six surviving ships from a supply fleet that sailed from Plymouth, England in early June of 1609. A week short of its destination, the fleet was scattered by a hurricane. The flagship, named the Sea Venture, which carried the expedition’s leaders, was driven onto reefs at Bermuda, an event that became the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest,” Dr. Horn said.

In mid-August, six of the ships eventually reached Jamestown. But their arrival, with little food and many extra mouths, did not bring relief or comfort. The settlers’ insistent demands for food antagonized the Powhatan Indians, who at first had welcomed and provisioned them. In October or early November, with about 300 colonists crowded into the narrow confines of the James fort, the Powhatans launched a full-scale attack and siege, cutting off any hope of outside relief.
People began eating leather from their clothes and boots and killing their horses, cats and dogs. Those who ventured into the woods in search of roots were killed by Indians. “Only in the most desperate of circumstances would the English have turned to cannibalism,” Dr. Horn said.
The colony was saved in May 1610 by the arrival of the settlers who had been marooned in Bermuda. They found the 60 survivors as thin as skeletons. In June 1610, another relief fleet arrived, commanded by Lord De La Warr, who would later lend his name to the state of Delaware. De La Warr’s men swept the grisly remains of the siege — dog and horse bones and those of at least one person — into the refuse pile that Dr. Kelso and his colleagues have just begun to excavate.

The Jamestown site was long thought to have eroded into the James River but was rediscovered by Dr. Kelso and other archaeologists, who began excavations in 1994. The site was selected for colonization in 1607 by the Virginia Company of London because no Indians lived there, but — as it turned out — the reason the land was uninhabited was that it was swampy and unsuitable for agriculture.   

Bernard Bailyn, a Harvard historian and an expert on colonial history, said the new report of cannibalism was very interesting.  "It's part of the disaster the company faced and the terrible problems they had at the beginning," Dr. Bailyn said.  As to the reasons the Virginia Company failed to provide adequate support to its colony, he said, "Whose fault it was is very difficult to say."  

A version of this article appeared in print on May 2, 2013, on page A11 of the New York edition with the headline: Girl’s Bones Bear Signs of Cannibalism by Starving Virginia Colonists.