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The Dies Irae in Stravinsky's Rite

copyright 2002 by Larry Solomon

I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. [The composer's account of the initial conception of the Rite of Spring]

The Sacrifice is the second and last part of the ballet La Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) by Igor Stravinsky. In this part "a young girl dances herself to death". It is fitting, therefore, that a version of the Roman Catholic death chant of the Last Judgment, the Dies Irae, was used as the primary theme in the solemn Introduction and the "Mystic Circles of the Young Girls". The theme permeates the Introduction. Ex 1

The reference is unmistakable. In another place, as in Ex 2, the initial interval is minor: Ex 2

This four-note truncation is often used. The final interval falls a diminished fourth, rather than a minor third, a common transformation. Another version uses a permutation of a five-note truncation: Ex 3

Here, the third and fourth notes from the Dies are exchanged and an extension of one note is added to form the characteristic falling third at the end. Sometimes the intervals are augmented: Ex 4

This is counterpointed with an interval-diminished inversion of the four-note figure in the soprano: Ex 5

Although the soprano part is intervallically condensed the basic contour of the Dies inversion is preserved. At rehearsal number 90 the theme is in parallel fifths in the bass with the same counterpointed inversion above in octaves: Ex 6

Parallel triads are used in a version at 89: Ex 6

Appropriately, the Dies Irae theme is reserved for the first two sections of Part II. Thereby, it serves as a subliminal symbol and premonition of the terrible sacrifice that is to come. Then, in the violent sections that follow, it vanishes. Quotations permeate the Rite and other early Stravinsky scores, such as The Firebird, Petrushka, and Les Noces. Most are from Russian folksongs, and some were lifted from collections by Stravinsky's teacher, Rimsky Korsakov, who complied a collection of 100 Folksongs, Op. 24, and from Anton Juskiewicz's Melodje ludowe litewskie (Cracow, 1900). Richard Taruskin has documented these in Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, 1996. Stravinsky dismissed or ignored any claim of borrowing, promoting the myth that the Rite was an entirely original score. However, recent studies, by Taruskin and others, have convincingly shown that this is not the case. After an initial involvement, Stravinsky sought to separate himself from what he considered to be a culturally inferior, folklorist tradition in Russia, seeking instead to be identified with the "international" German style. He even condescended about Bartok: "I could never share his lifelong gusto for his native folklore. This devotion was certainly real and touching, but I couldn't help regretting it in the great musician." [Conversations with Stravinsky,72]. In fact, the Rite now appears to be an amalgamation of harmonized folk tunes and other quotations, including those from Rimsky and Mussorgsky. In most cases in the Rite subtle changes, similar to those of the Dies Irae renderings, disguise the original sources. They are further masked by placing them into polytonal and extra-tonal contexts. Taruskin's study is recommended to readers. I will show only a few of his examples in order to demonstrate that the use of the Dies Irae is not an anomaly, but simply fits the pattern of covert alteration. Even the very beginning of the Rite is borrowed material from a folksong: Ex 7

Ex 7a is from Juskiewicz's folksong collection, Melodje ludowe litewskie, and Ex 7b is the bassoon solo at very beginning of the Rite of Spring. The similarity is unmistakable even though rhythm is changed, and interpolations embellish the line. Ex 8a is from Melodje ludowe litewskie, followed by Ex 8b, from rehearsal No. 19 of the Rite. Stravinsky added pounding repetitions, which enhance the primitive effect. Ex 8

Finally, Ex 9a is from Juskiewicz's collection followed by rehearsal No. 48 from the Rite, Ex 9b. Ex 9

There can be no doubt that these are borrowed tunes, although somewhat altered. Taruskin reveals many more. Thus, the Dies Irae usage fits the pattern of covert alteration found in the folk material. Stravinsky apparently felt that these revelations would harm his reputation and the precious originality of his work. So, he concealed their use, but such fears seem unjustified today. The discovery of these mysteries only enriches the content of the Rite.