If you have never heard Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” I might suggest you rectify that immediately. That said, I’m willing to wager that not even Stravinsky himself really believed that his ballet (yes, it’s a ballet) bore any reasonable relationship to actual pagan practices. Historians in this period were famous for filling the blanks and making shit up when the factual record got sketchy, one certainly couldn’t expect artists would cite their sources or care much for authenticity, either.
The Rite of Spring begins with the plaintive, winding strains of wind instruments, that very quickly transmogrify into a pulsing, swirling cacophony that makes up in rhythm what it lacks in tonality. The sense that things are bursting, and growing more boisterous by the minute, is inescapable. It is intensely busy and emotional, almost relentless.There are moments where lilting melodies show up, do a quick twirl and then disappear again into a mesmerizing swirl of sound. But mostly it throbs and whirls and flutters all over the place until you reach the end, a jabbing, stabby, ominous affair of drums and staccato strings and winds twitching their way to the edge of a cliff, and then jumps to its end.
I am going to take the position here that Rite of Spring is the complete embodiment of Ostara, even though its absolutely clear that Stravinsky knew nothing about the pagan spring holiday. I know we tend to think of spring as being a gentle time of year, one of pastel colors of newly blooming flowers, and of newborn animals — cute chicks and bunnies, fawns and lambs, puppies, kittens. Stravinsky’s bitonal work, with it’s uneven and spiky approach to melody and its throbbing rhythms, does not seem to fit the mold.
Indeed, everything about Stravinsky’s work was difficult. The conductor, Pierre Montreaux, upon hearing the work for the first time played by Stravinsky on a piano, was so disturbed he ran from the room. It was everything the producer of Les Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghalev, could do to get him to agree to conduct the premiere. The premiere of the ballet on May 29,1913, was by all accounts, mayhem. Some say it was the risqué choreography and dancing of ballet great Vaslav Nijinsky. Some blame it on the warring factions of the French aristocracy and the more artistic bohemians in attendance. But for whatever reason, the audience was unruly almost from the moment the ballet began, and members of the orchestra reported that random objects were hurled at them through nearly the entire performance.
The critics at the time hated it. The ballet ran for several more performances in Paris, and a few more in London, but the choreography was viewed with such disdain that no one even attempted to reconstruct Nijinsky’s work until the 1980’s. Other dance masters would choreograph their own ballets to the music, which did enjoy some popularity as a concert piece. Though now considered one of the seminal works in 20th Century classical music, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is also considered perhaps one of the most disruptive. One music historian says that it “so scattered the elements of musical language that they could never again be put together as before.”
And Ostara, also known as the spring equinox, is anything but balanced, no matter what you can do with an egg on that day. Why? Because spring does not happen in a measured, sedate, steady way. Spring is when the elements finally break free from the ice-clad, frigidness of winter. And it is not an easy task. Trickles from the sheen on ice melting grow into rivulets, eventually turning into rushing and swollen rivers that carry the brisk spring thaw to replenish drinking water. The icy frozenness that has gripped the earth begins to loosen, and soon the soil is crackling with the activity of worms and bugs that have woken. Seedlings begin pushing their way through their seed coat and into the soil in a desperate search to find nourishment and light. soon they will erupt from the ground and push out shoots and leaves, and finally flowers in a riot of shapes and colors.
And then the bees will come. Their hives are all bustling and buzzing with the gathering of pollen, the beginnings of honey production, the laying of eggs and the hatching of new drones, new workers, perhaps even a new queen, which will eventually cause the riotousness that is a swarm. Birds are now out in force, the renewed activity of the worms and insects causing them to begin their tireless feeding of the chicks that have just pecked their way out of their shells. Calves and lambs and piglets are all starting to drop from their mothers, their squeals and calls for their mothers piercing the peaceful bucolic scene on most farms. The wind is no longer bitterly cold but it is quixotic — one minute sweet and sun-warmed, and the next heavy and swirling with rain, and then still. Lightning storms cut the sky open, and the sun is sometimes bright, and sometimes gone, often many times in the space of a single day.
None of this is orderly. None of this is peaceful. It is boisterous and halting and pulsing and relentless. Much like Stravinsky’s famous ballet, the beginnings of the act of creation shatter the stillness of what had gone before. All the things that had held themselves in abeyance for so long see a chance at freedom and burst forth, seeking their moments in the newly emboldened sun. And all of it is fragile for its newness. We are not yet at Beltane, when the warmth of the sun and the fecundity of the earth reach that raw rolling pitch that empowers it to fully create and manifest in all directions. All of these new plants, baby birds, small rivulets are tender and too young to do anything but stand bravely in the face of the ripening season and hope that they do not get crushed. There is no certainty that they will see the next stage of the wheel. All they have is this fleeting time when they can bloom, can gambol in the barns, can whisk and wend their way through the woods and the plains and the mountains and everywhere. Spring is the place where everything is possibility and nothing has been fully settled yet.
Let me repeat that last part: nothing has been fully settled yet. Ostara is a time of beginnings, the start of the growing cycle. We are months and months away from harvest, which is nothing more than a glimmer in the farmer’s eye. Any decisions you may want to make can be unmade fairly quickly and easily. Mistakes cost very little, so making them shouldn’t bother you. There is new freedom to move, to explore, to venture outside into the world and see what’s happening.
So dance — even if the music is strange and the movements are awkward. Jump and sing and be noisy and boisterous. We have all been too long in winter’s grasp. It is time to be free and enjoy the Rite of Spring.