The Conductor
The Teacher
The Speaker
The Art Of Possibility
Ben's Biography Latest News Recordings Join The Conversation Where's Ben Contact Us Search Home Page

Stravinsky - The Rite Of Spring


It is little known that in 1920 Igor Stravinsky began
supervising programming of piano rolls for the major works he had so far
composed, "in order", as he said "to create a lasting document
which should be of service to those executants who would rather know and follow
my intentions than stray to irresponsible interpretations of my musical

The most astonishing aspect of the rolls of the Rite of Spring is that the
final Dance Sacrale, in which the young virgin dances herself to death, goes far
faster in relation to the rest of the work than we ever hear it played now, even
on Stravinsky's own recordings.

What happened? Can Stravinsky have indeed intended this to be the tempo of
the section when all his scores bore a metronome mark nearly 30 points slower
than what we hear on the piano roll?

The eminent American musicologist, William Malloch, first drew my attention
to this remarkable information. One of the most insightful and creative thinkers
about music today, Mr Malloch has explored in great depth the way in which the
existing technology of the day-i.e. barrel organs, music boxes, piano rolls and
metronomes - can shed light on the tempi at which pieces of music were
originally played. He argues that the reason Stravinsky reduced the tempo for
this section was that the music was so difficult for the players of the day and
indeed for Stravinsky himself to conduct, that the composer simply wrote in the
score and used in his own performances a tempo that he and his musicians could
manage. All conductors since then have followed suit.

It is interesting to note that Pierre Monteux, the man who conducted the work
at its stormy premiere in 1913 and therefore the musician closest to the
original conception, is heard struggling to drive the Paris musicians into
playing the section at very nearly the tempo of the piano roll on his 1929
recording, though the results verge on chaos. Stravinsky fares no better in his
own recording of the same year at the slower tempo, underscoring the fact that
this music presented an extraordinary challenge for even the best European
musicians of the day at any speed!

Malloch ingeniously offers the theory that other composers who happened to be
in Paris around this time were influenced by the heady effect of the Dance
Sacrale and quoted it in their own works.

In Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Aaron Copland's the Young
Pioneers and, most strikingly, in the Finale of Prokoviev's Seventh Piano
Sonata, there are passages that quote almost verbatim the Dance Sacrale, but at
the tempo of the piano roll, not at the familiar slower tempo. Since all three
composers, by coincidence, made piano rolls of their own works at the Pleyel
studio it is inevitable that they would have heard Stravinsky's roll of the
Dance Sacrale at the fast tempo and it apparently made an indelible impression
on them.

Could the dancers have danced the section at this breakneck speed? Perhaps
this wasn't Stravinsky's primary concern. At one of the rehearsals for the Rite,
Marie Rambert, the great Russian dancer, describes how "Hearing the way the
music was being played, Stravinsky blazed up, pushed aside the fat German
pianist ... and proceeded to play twice as fast as we had been doing it and
twice as fast as we could possibly dance. He stamped his feet on the floor and
banged his fist on the piano and sang and shouted

At the galvanizing speed of the piano roll, the conclusion of the work's
second part matches and even surpasses the cumulative excitement of the first
part, instead of being something of an anti- climax and certainly, we can
readily understand how a sacrificial figure could have danced herself to death
at such a tempo, whereas at the slower tempo she seems to have a chance to

No one will ever know what Stravinsky would have wanted had he heard the
Dance played by an orchestra at the tempo of the piano roll. It is hard to
imagine that he would not have joyously embraced it as "the truth", so
staggering is its effect.

Perhaps there is poetic justice that a conception that was musical training,
to study and perform the great works of the abandoned because the most
experienced musicians of the day orchestral repertoire and to work under the
inspiring leadership could not realize it in 1929, is finally restored to its
original power of founder Benjamin Zander. by a semi-professional orchestra 70
years later!

Their concerts, each prepared in weekly rehearsals over a period of two to
three months are eagerly awaited by Boston's Benjamin Zander musical audiences
as "some of the most important musical events in the city". (Boston

- Benjamin Zander

BENJAMIN ZANDER, founder and music director of the
Boston Philharmonic, has become a legendary figure in Boston's
teeming musical life. One of the most passionate and charismatic
musicians before the public today, his inspired guidance has
affected the lives of countless musicians and music lovers.

Born in London into a musical family, Mr. Zander studied cello
with the great Spanish virtuoso Gaspar Cassado in Florence and
at the State Conservatoire in Cologne, and played widely as a
recitalist and chamber musician. After completing a degree in
English Literature at London University, he came to the United
States on a Harkness Fellowship. Since 1967, he has been on the
faculty of the New England Conservatory, teaching classes in
performance and interpretation and conducting the orchestras.
With the Conservatory's highly acclaimed Youth Philharmonic
Orchestra he has toured in Russia, Romania, Poland, Austria,
Israel and the Far East.

His audiences have come to expect performances of passion
and searching intelligence that draw from the players -
professionals, students and amateurs alike - a level of
commitment and informed intensity that is rare in the concert
world today. In the words of the Boston Review, "Over the past
twenty-five years, Zander's daring approach to the classics has
injected into the community a vision of music's power to move the
human spirit".

THE BOSTON PHILHARMONIC, founded in 1979, is a
community orchestra in the best sense of the word. It consists of
one hundred musicians, amateurs, students and young
professionals brought together by their desire to further their musical training, to study and perform the great works of the
orchestral repertoire and to work under the inspiring leadership
of founder Benjamin Zander.

Their concerts, each prepared in weekly rehearsals over a
period of two to three months are eagerly awaited by Boston's
musical audiences as "some of the most important musical events
in the city". (Boston Globe).

Following their sell-out performance of the Mahler Second
Symphony in Carnegie Hall in 1982, John Rockwell of the New
York Times wrote: "Too many professional performances today,
for all their technical polish, sound devoid of soul. Perhaps
enlightened amateurism is an answer".

This recording of the Rite of Spring was taped at a performance
in Jordan Hall of the„New England Conservatory in Boston on
May Sth 1990. It marks the orchestra's and the conductor's
recording debut.

Stravinsky decided that he best liked this music in concert
version, deeming the story lines unessential. But he had set down
the following description, and the listener may find it convenient
as a guide.

In the Introduction before the curtain rises I have given to the orchestra alone the idea of that great sense of fear which weighs upon all sensitive spirits before a controlled power ... a profound mystic sensation which comes to all things at the hour when nature seeks to renew its various forms of life; it is this vague, yet profound discord which affects all at puberty ...

The musical material itself swells, expands and is then diffused; each instrument is like a bud which grows on the bark of a venerable tree; it becomes part of an immense ensemble ...

In the first tableau (The Fertility of the Earth) same adolescents are seen with an old, old woman, a woman whose age is not known,
nor even from what century she comes, but who understands the
secrets of nature and who 6 teaching their meaning to her sons. She runs, bowed down toward the ground, as if neither woman nor
animal. These adolescents near her are the Augurs of Spring ...During this time the adolescent girls come down to the river. They form a circle which mixes with that of the boys. The group
merge; but in their rhythm one feels a straining toward the
formulation of new groups; and they divide to right and left. Now
a new form has been realized, a synthesis of rhythms, and then
from this a new rhythm is produced (Dow o! the Youth and
Maidens; Dam of Abduction; Spring Rounds).

The groups separate and begin to fight. Messengers go from one
to another and struggle ... signifying, so to speak, that aspect of
brute force which is also play (Camtsoi Rival Towns). The arrival
of a procession is heard. It is the Sage, the oldest man of the clan.
A great fear surges through the crowd. Then the Sage, face down
on the ground becoming one with the soil, gives a benediction to the
earth (Entrance of the Celebrant, Kiss to the Earth). Then all cover
their heads, run in spirals, and leap as though endowed with
renewed energy from nature ... the (Dance to the Earth).

The second tableau, The Sacrifice, begins with a quiet and
obscure play among the adolescent girls. At the opening the
musical prelude (Introduction - The Pagan Night) is based in a
mysterious song which accompanies the dance of the young girls.
They mark within their circle the signs showing where the
Glorified One will finally be enclosed never to come out again. She
it is who is being consecrated to the Spring and who will thus return
to Spring the vitality which Youth has taken from it (Mystic Circle
of the Adolescents).

Around the Chosen One, who is immobile, the young girls dance
a ritual of glorification (Dow to the Glorified One); then follows
the purification of the soil and an Evocation of the Ancestors. The
Ancestors group themselves around the Chosen One (Ritual
Performance of the Ancestors) and she commences the Sacrificial

As she is about to fall exhausted, the Ancestors glide toward her
like rapacious monsters. So that she should not touch the soil as she
falls, they seize her and raise her towards the sky.


To the outsider, the world of player-pianos must seem
complicated. There are many different recording systems, many
different styles of piano, some with and some without keyboards,
and the music rolls for all of them come in a variety of shapes, sizes
and even colours. So to understand Stravinsky's involvement with
these instruments, it will be helpful to consider first how they
work, and how their rolls were manufactured.

Just as most motor cars run on petrol, nearly all player-pianos
are powered by suction, despite their many dissimilarities of
appearance. There are two main types of player-piano; the
reproducing piano, which uses recorded music rolls with suction
generated by an electric pump, and the foot-operated player-
piano (commonly called `pianola' for short) which a `pianolist'
must play, using pedals to create dynamic levels and accents, and
levers to phrase, sustain, subdue and generally bring to life a
musical performance.

As a music roll passes over a metal tracker bar in the front of a
player-piano, it allows air to pass through its perforations to a
series of 88 tiny holes, one for each note of the piano. A hole being
opened, tree air causes a tiny valve to lift and channel suction to
a small pneumatic motor, rather like a miniature bellows. As air
is sucked out of the motor, it collapses and pushes on a lever that
operates the piano key, so that the chain from perforated roll to
audible music is complete.

Whereas reproducing rolls were made by means of special
recording pianos, so that the actual playing of a concert pianist
was captured, pianola rolls were on the whole a form of
transcription from the printed score. Typically, a musical editor
would place the sheet music on a small lectern in front of him and
lay a blank master roll across a table at which he sat. A scale of
note lengths would be decided upon, perhaps 24 perforations to
the beat, and the music would be marked up and then stamped out
by hand, with a hammer and several sizes of punch. From 1900 to
1930 this transcription process remained a very important means
of creating music rolls in order to leave4 the pianolist great scope of
individual interpretation.


Paradoxically, part of the attraction for Stravinsky of these
metronomic rolls was his belief that they helped him to limit
excessive freedom on the part of concert artists, and to that intent
he was keen to specify roll speeds and general dynamic changes.
By the early 1920 his acquaintance with the pianola (Etude pour
Pianola - 1971) had grown into a deep involvement with the
instrument and in particular with the Pleyela, manufactured by
the French firm of Pleyel, Lyon et Cie. In his memoirs Stravinsky
recalls the fascination he had for the arrangement of his works
directly for music roll, where the limitations of ten fingers and two
hands are simply irrelevant.

Working in an apartment which he rented in the Pleyel building
in Paris, he was able to maintain direct control over the
translation of his works on to roll, a task which he delegated in
detail to Jacques Larmanjat, the head of Pleyel's musical
department. In this way, over a period of about six years,
Stravinsky arranged most of his major ballets especially for the
Pleyela; Petrouchka, Firebird, Les Noces, Pulcinella, Song of the
Nightingale and of course, nine rolls of the Rite of Spring.
Although he did not physically record the rolls, which have in any
case far too many notes for a human being to manage, he was able
to specify the number of perforations per beat in each section of
the music, giving us an exact reflection of his ideas of tempi at the

None of Stravinsky's Pleyela rolls has even been recorded on
disc before, and on this occasion a 1912 Aeolian push-up Pianola
was used, a device that fits in front of a normal piano and plays it
by means of a set of felt-covered wooden fingers. The piano was
a Bosendorfer Imperial concert grand in the Great Hall of
Dulwich College, London.

Rex Lawson


   Conductor  :  Teacher  :  Speaker  :  The Art of Possiblity  :  Biography  :  Latest News  :  Recordings  :  Join The Conversation  :  Where's Ben?  :  Contact  :  Home

Site Search     
   All Rights Reserved
   Benjamin Zander
   Tel: 617/491-8515
   Fax: 617/864-4576