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Leonard Bernstein's 'Rite of Spring' Thrill Ride

If you think all the twitchy rhythms and random shards of melody flashing through Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring sound complicated, consider the poor musicians who have to learn it. And then there's the conductor, who needs to perfectly place every piccolo tweet and bass drum boom.

Henri Girard, one of the double bass players in the Paris orchestra that premiered The Rite 100 years ago under conductor Pierre Monteux, said the rehearsals were more than a little baffling.

"Everybody was confused by the complicated rhythms, atrocious dissonances, and strange sounds to which our ears were unaccustomed," Girard says in Stravinsky: A Creative Spring: Russia and France 1882-1934 by Stephen Walsh. "Musicians started asking Monteux if the parts were correctly printed." At one point, the entire orchestra broke down in nervous laughter. That's when Stravinsky himself got up and told them they didn't have to laugh because he indeed knew exactly what he wrote.

The music is still difficult today, even for seasoned orchestras. To give you an idea what an orchestra and conductor look like in full Rite of Spring swing, we couldn't help sharing a vintage clip from one of the ultimate pros. It's Leonard Bernstein, age 48, leading the final moments of the first part of The Rite, from a 1966 concert with the London Symphony Orchestra.

It is a thrilling performance, both by the orchestra and Bernstein, who is on fire for Stravinsky. He dances, prances and is simultaneously intoxicated with and in total control of the music. Bernstein's ideas about The Rite of Spring may come as a surprise. He didn't think of it as being all that radical.

"It's extremely tonal, despite all the talk about barbaric dissonance," he told Humphrey Burton in an interview included on this recently released DVD. "It is also extremely tuneful and dancy, rhythmically seductive, beguiling."

Seated at the piano for the interview, Bernstein dissects the jabbing chords near the beginning of The Rite, demonstrating how they are perfectly normal, just stacked in such a way that "makes a marvelous kind of savage sound."

"The minute you analyze these sounds," Bernstein says, "you find that they are traceable to the 19th century or even 18th century — the basic classical roots of tonal music."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.