Composer Larry Bell chairs the music theory & composition program in NEC's School of Continuing Education, as well as the theory program in our Preparatory School. Acting as accompanist for two of his own recent song cycles in a February 23 concert, he will remain at the keyboard for the two-piano version of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps (Rite of Spring). Bell has written this note about a Stravinsky work that remains high on playlists following the 2013 centennial of its riotous premiere.
Rite for Piano Duo
Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring was first published as a piano duet the week of the first performance in May 1913 by Éditions Russes in Paris. Today’s musicians may not be aware that most orchestral music was published initially as piano duets. The orchestral score to this work was delayed publication by World War I (1914–1918) and not performed until the 1920s. Conductor Ernest Ansermet and Stravinsky competed to be the first conductor of the orchestral premiere in 1921.
Hearing the piece eight years later, Stravinsky was dissatisfied and made substantial changes. Indeed, the history of the work is one of revision through 1948. That year Boosey & Hawkes obtained the rights to the orchestral score even though Stravinsky had in 1943 rewritten the Sacrificial Dance (Danse Sacrale), the work’s conclusion.
Boosey & Hawkes was not able to publish the 1943 Danse Sacrale and only in 1967 was the newest form of the piano duet made available. Michael Tilson Thomas and Ralph Grierson premiered the piano duet version at the Monday evening concerts in Los Angeles in 1967 and recorded it in 1969. For logistical reasons, they played it on two pianos rather than piano four-hands.
I bought this recording in 1969 and listened to it until I wore out the grooves. Later I purchased a cassette tape of the same recording. It is included in my “Top Five Favorites” for my Berklee website.
In one sense the piano duet is the original version. Certainly it was the version that influenced a host of composers in the United States from the 1920s until the present. It is also interesting to see a concrete example of how Stravinsky used the piano to compose. One small example of this is the famous repeated chord in the Danses des Adolescentes. Its famous F-flat major chord in the left hand and E-flat dominant seventh in the right hand of the secondo part lies perfectly under the hands.
On a personal note, I had the privilege to work as the solfège teaching assistant at the Juilliard School with Renée Longy. French-born and reared, she attended the Paris premiere and entertained us with lively stories about it.