Four-hand Rite of Spring: piano power-play

Hearing a concert performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in its piano-duet incarnation earlier this week reminded me of something I had forgotten: the emphatically pianistic nature of Stravinsky’s monster.

The orchestral version of the piece is a rich tapestry of colour in the same vein occupied by Stravinsky’s predecessor, Rimsky-Korsakov. And whilst it’s a brilliant evocation of a romantic symphony orchestra tearing itself to pieces as it grapples with the nightmare of the ritual it seeks to portray, hearing the four-hand version reminded me that Stravinsky wrote it at the piano, and that many of the cluster-chords and superimposed blocks of harmony are a direct result of how the notes lie under the pianist’s fingers.

Debussy, that master Impressionist, played the arrangement with Stravinsky early on and called it ”a beautiful nightmare.” Hearing it in stripped of its orchestration really brings home the percussive power of the piece, the dissonances formed by clusters of chords under the fingers, the importance of the octatonic scale (two superimposed diminshed sevenths, a semitone apart: the harmonic possibilites offered by this set of notes are richly varied), and the shattering of rhythmic stability as the piece struggles to cope with the destructive forces fighting to break loose.

The octatonic scale on C

The performance, unleashed by legends Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith, reminded me anew of just how indebted Stravinsky’s piece is to its pianistic origins. This is to take nothing away from the work: it loses little in its duet arrangement (especially when performed by these two giants of the British piano scene). It’s still a monster.

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One Response

  1. The last few months, I’ve been working on an animated graphical score of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Last week I completed the first part:

    Enjoy!

    Stephen Malinowski
    Music Animation Machine
    stephenmalinowski.com

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