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When the Rite goes wrong

Igor Stravinsky was fond of dismantling conductors who deviated from what he considered to be the only correct way to perform the Rite of Spring. Some of his caustic commentaries can be found on my Album of the Week on

His own performances, however, differed widely from one another. He was certainly no judge of consistency.

Still, why would we want a recording that the composer dismissed as ‘excessive’? Because the composer does not always know best. Read on here.


photo: NY Philharmonic archives


And here’s a living conductor’s take on it.

Esa-Pekka Salonen on the Rite of Spring from Philharmonia Orchestra on Vimeo.

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  1. Hasbeen says:

    I was in the audience when Bernstein conducted The Rite with Stravinsky sitting in the conductors box, above and to the right of the orchestra, at then Philharmonic Hall. It was the opening concert of a Stravinsky Festival in 1966. Stravinsky’s reaction widely reported at the time was ‘WOW !’

  2. Graham C Atkinson says:

    There is a glorious story in the New Zealand Symphony history told by Alan Gold principal clarinet “When Stravinsky was here, conducting the end of part of Firebird, where the big chords are, he changed it, which was fine, we did it, and about 18 months later, we had another conductor doing the whole of Firebird, and when we got to the end of it, we played these chords short. The conductor, almost in despair, threw his baton down on his podium. “My God,” he said, “What are you doing that for? What jerk ever told you to play the thing like that?” And old Vince [Aspey – NZSO Concertmaster at the time] he just sat there and said, “Oh, it was some old Russian bugger called Igor, I think!”

  3. “…the composer does not always know best.”

    That might also apply to Rachmaninoff. I like it!

    I have Bernstein’s “Rite of Spring” with the Israel Philharmonic, which is spectacular! I’ll need to compare it with this recording now.

  4. Stravinsky’s own performances vary as the first recording conveys more of his immediate experience working with the Ballets Russes from the piano, playing more rhythmically. By the 1940 NY recording his work was better known so the orchestra struggled less and he had evolved as a conductor. His presence is minimal in the late stereo version from the Craft era, finding the composer on hand for cosmetic touch ups after the main rehearsals were undertaken by Craft.

    He once told his son Soulima that he deliberately left few expressive marks in scores, fearing how they risked becoming a base for exaggeration. When Soulima played his father’s solo works after World War II, he tastefully added such nuances and Igor was delighted. By the way, both had the same piano teacher – Isidor Philipp, who coached Igor during his preparations to appear as soloist in his own concertos.

  5. John Porter says:

    That 1958 recording with the NY Phil made at the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn, is hands down my favorite. It has a presence and vitality that makes the Rite sound as if it is brand new.

    The recording I like second best is Stravinky’s own with the Columbia Symphony, made out in LA.

    I have Stravinsky conducting the NY Phil in the Rite from 1940….not nearly as good as either of the above mentioned two. There’s also a recording of him conducting the Rite from 1928. I think I have it on an old Andante box set…

  6. One of my old conducting teachers was a member of Boston’s percussion section and later an extra player in the NY Phil. The two most exciting people to play Le Sacre under for him were Monteux and Bernstein.

  7. Eric Benjamin says:

    Gosh…how short was Igor Stravinsky that Leonard Bernstein almost towers over him?

  8. Regardless of whatever the ‘old bugger’ may have said, or when he may have said it, you can also say ‘wow’ to the Boulez version.

  9. A musician says:

    I performed the Rite of Spring with Bernstein in 1987 and yes, it was an incredible experience to have the piece taught to us in a new and exciting way. Interestingly, Bernstein conducted from Koussevitsky’s score, which changed many of the original complex meters into easier-to-conduct simple meters with no change in the actual sound. I will never forget the colors, the primeval qualities, the violence, not to mention those sensual/sexual qualities he brought out.

    • I understand the Ormandy did the same thing – he had the piece re-notated because he couldn’t conduct complex meters. (With properly placed accent marks on the notes, the musical effect ended up being more or less the same.)

  10. Don Drewecki says:

    My recollection is that Stravinsky said “Wow!” about a performance Lenny gave in the 1940s of the Symphony of Psalms that he personally attended. That recollection is taken from one of the last Stravinsky/Craft books, in which he discusses conductors.

    Second, read John McClure’s memoir in “Gramophone” last year — he tells a story of IStr berating Lenny after a live performance of “Sacre” in the early 1960s, at Carnegie with the NYPhil. Now, McClure gets it wrong about where the January 1960 recording of “Sacre” was made (in the ballroom of the St. George Hotel, not the American Legion Hall in Hollywood), but the rest of it rings true.

    Finally, IStr made THREE commercial recordings of “Sacre” — 1929 in Paris with a recording orchestra; 1940 with the NY Phil; and in New York with a recording orchestra in 1960. IStr also made multiple recordings of much of his repertoire, so that conductors would not take the Stokowski/Bernstein route of blowing all emotion out of proportion to structure and tempi. In much of “Sacre” his tempi are remarkably consistent, even if the orchestral playing is not.

    I find it utterly amazing that the conductors of today, big and small, are either unable or unwilling to listen to these precious documents.

    • “I find it utterly amazing that the conductors of today, big and small, are either unable or unwilling to listen to these precious documents.”

      If I am going to perform it exactly like he did in one of his recordings, why not save the time and just play the recording for the audience to stay true to the “composers intentions”?

      • “If I am going to perform it exactly like he did in one of his recordings, why not save the time and just play the recording for the audience to stay true to the ‘composers intentions’?”


        I wish that some pianists would take that to heart, e.g. when they try to “imitate” Rachmaninoff’s tempi and other aspects of his interpretations of his own music from his recordings — it just cannot be done convincingly.

        To me, a tempo is like a heartbeat. Everyone’s heart beats slightly differently, some faster, some slower than others. If an interpretation of any work of music is to be at all convincing, it has to come from the heart of the INTERPRETER. The composer who has made recordings of their own performances, even if it is in their own music, is just another interpreter in that context, IMHO.

        • Don Drewecki says:

          Robert: Yeah, but in numerous interviews Stravinsky stressed repeatedly that he wanted conductors and performers TO LEAST LISTEN TO THEM — something conductors of today resolutely refuse to do.

          If we had recordings of Mozart and Beethoven conducting and performing their own music, wouldn’t we want to listen to and learn from them? Don’t many music lovers wish they had recordings conducted by Mahler of HIS music? If the answer to these questions is yes, then why the disdain for Stravinsky’s own composer-conducted recordings? Do people express similar disdain for Holst’s two recordings of his “Planets”?

      • Don Drewecki says:

        Jeff, that’s a good idea on a cynical level. But, Stravinsky deliberately made recordings of his music for the purpose of guiding later conductors, in the real world, on how he wanted his music to go. Therefore, the conductors of today really should avail themselves of that effort — thanks to eBay you can now find virtually every scrap of music he recorded. There is something to say for keeping a composer’s wishes in mind when performing his or her music.

  11. Mati Braun says:

    Stravinsky was not a good conductor.

    • Steven Honigberg says:

      From my biography of Leonard Rose: America’s Golden Age and Its First Cellist

      Leonard Rose also played under Igor Stravinsky, whom he recalled as “not particularly good on the podium. I might add that his opinion of his own music was not overly astute either.”

      • Don Drewecki says:

        Did LR offer specific examples in which IStr came up short in conducting his own music?

    • Don Drewecki says:

      Mati: And what do you think of Stravinsky’s recordings of Le Baiser de la Fee, Symphony in C and the complete Pulcinella in 1950s mono recordings, and the 1964 Orpheus recording in stereo with the Chicago Symphony — all made after concert performances with those very orchestras? Would you point out to me the conducting defects in those recordings?

      • Don Drewecki says:

        I dropped one phrase “with the Cleveland Orchestra” after the phrase “1950s mono recordings”. Sorry.

  12. Angela Cockburn says:

    Anything written for dancers of necessity has steady rhythms. Orchestral versions can “pull” the rhythms.

  13. Christopher Oakmount says:

    Just for your entertainment: That’s what happened when I was looking for The Rite of Spring on a popular mail order web site. Maybe not Stravinsky? ;-){the+rites+of+spring}+c{34}+ae55{Music+CD}+&urlrefer=search

  14. Stravinsky visited South Africa in 1962 when he was eighty years old. I was a teenager singing in the SABC choir and Robert Craft conducted the choir in “Symphony of Psalms”. Stravinsky himself conducted “The Firebird Suite” so the choir was facing him during the performance. He lost his place in the score in the middle of the performance and had to thumb through the score to find it again. Thankfully the orchestra continued playing as though nothing untoward had happened. Needless to say, there was a long and standing ovation after the performance!

  15. I’m surprised that this string has gone this far without anybody bringing up the fact that IS’s last Sacre recording (the one for Columbia in stereo), is one of very few that utilizes Stravinsky’s 1943 reorchestration and re-notation of the final Danse sacrale. The re-notation of the score contains significant alterations of string-chord durations, which can be heard already in the Danse’s first few measures. To me, one simply cannot make comparisons among recordings without taking these changes into account, as they can have an influence on the impression made by the whole piece. Performed as notated, they make the section sound more brutally mechanical, as if the Chosen One had become a Stravinskyized break dancer. With the pre-1943 orchestration, it is easier to hear the weight of tribal tradition serving to bring down the Chosen One. It’s first thoughts vs last thoughts.

    Among other things, both Bernstein commercial recordings feature LB’s retention of a final guero scrape into the last chord of the piece (I seem to recall Dutoit also retained this in his Montreal recording, but I’m not absolutely sure). This is a touch originating in the 1921 first printed full score (from Koussevitzky’s publishing house) that I wish the composer had kept through subsequent revisions of the orchestration. It disappeared in the 1929 2nd edition from the same publisher which also had other major changes in orchestration. Harvard had a yellowing copy of the 1921 score which was still available for student loan when I was there. I hope it is now protected in the reserve collection.

    The Rite is a minefield for anybody trying to make a single critical edition of the piece. Perhaps the best solution would be to present multiple versions of passages that had major changes in orchestration and publish them separately for performers to choose among, much like Handel’s Messiah or the 2nd Quarto and Folio versions of Hamlet. One could use “chance operations” to select among them, a la John Cage!

  16. Don Drewecki says:

    This quote is taken from Robert Craft’s 2006 rebuttal to Stephen Walsh, which I found on the Naxos Records website.


    “Walsh writes, on what grounds no one knows, that at the 1966 Lincoln Center Stravinsky Festival, “Stravinsky broadly approved of [Leonard] Bernstein’s way with the Rite … In [Stravinsky’s] box after the performance, he embraced Bernstein and remonstrated with him good-humouredly, almost in a single gesture.” This is fallacious on all counts, and would have required flying from the stage to the box.

    Actually, Stravinsky criticized the performance throughout, expressing his complaints in periodic groans. At the end, when Bernstein, from his podium, saluted the composer in his loge, the decibel-breaking applause compelled Stravinsky to take a deep bow to the standing, cheering, screaming audience. We then left the box, he on his wife’s arm, trembling and perspiring, climbing the steps to the corridor, and walking from there to the conductor’s green room. The reason for the abrupt exit was to escape a barrage of flashbulbs.

    Backstage, Stravinsky sat at a table, while an assistant brought Scotch, and Bernstein continued to bow. When he finally left the stage and embraced Stravinsky, the composer asked to see the score, turned to a page toward the end of the Danse sacrale, pointed to the six-note melody in the horns, and remarked brusquely, “There is no allargando here.” Bernstein, who had lingered too long on each note, answered that he loved this music passionately and was simply following Stokowski in the overemphasis. This fuelled Stravinsky’s fury, of course, though as the Scotch began to take effect, his natural graciousness returned.”

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