Rite of spring has own consequences

Dr. Shahar Madjar

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live in a different period. I have no desire to live in the trenches during a world war, lead a revolution, nor do I want to live through famine, earthquakes, or a global flu epidemic.

Instead, I want to return to the moments when ideas born in creative minds have finally come to fruition. Take me back to the day Anton Chekhov had just finished writing “The Lady with the Dog in her Lap.” Let me see Thomas Edison switching the light on. Transport me to the moment Van Leeuwenhoek peered, for the first time, into the life of a single cell.

Most of all, I want to sit in the audience at the premiere of The Rite of Spring, a ballet composed by Igor Stravinsky. I want to be in the audience not only because I love The Rite, or because I am perplexed by its rhythm, but because there was a drama taking place in that concert hall–a drama that had to do with rhythm, and with the human heart, and with human nature–and I just love dramas. More so, if I don’t have to stay until it’s all over.

Igor Stravinsky and I have a common past. No, we have never met. But I was listening to him. To his music, I mean. It started during my military service. I joined the army at 18. After a convoluted path that included a rigorous boot-camp and about a month in the Transportation and Logistic Service to which I was assigned by a miserable clerical mistake, I was eventually stationed in a military base in the center of Tel Aviv.

About the nature of my main mission there I can divulge absolutely nothing (top secret, you know). But that I can say: at the beginning of my service there, I was assigned gate-guard duty.

I was assigned to the South Gate of the base, once a week, for two nightly shifts of two hours each. The guard-booth was small. It was raining non-stop and cold. I wore a heavy coat, an Uzzi sub-machine gun strapped over my shoulder. It was boring and seemed endless.

To top that, the South Gate was very close to a large hospital that specialized in delivering babies. And as mothers were laboring and babies were delivered, the cries of agonies penetrated my mind at increasing frequency.

This can’t go on, I thought, and for the next shift I came equipped. I inserted a Walkman into an inside pocket of my jacket, and ran the wire–with a single earbud at its end–underneath my coat, and all the way to my ear. I zipped up my coat, and placed the hood over my head. This solution, I thought, would be ideal: nobody could see me listening to music which was prohibited during guard duty; I could fight boredom with art.

Things turned out differently. The only cassette I could find was Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” And so, I played it over and over. The Rite (an orchestral piece but also a ballet) opens with a depiction of primitive rituals celebrating the beginning of spring. It ends with the sacrifice of a young girl who dances herself to death. If the subject matter is lovely, its interpretation is even more unsettling. And most noticeably because of the irregular rhythm of the composition. It isn’t the 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, rhythm of a waltz, nor is it the more common 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 in most popular songs. To create The Rite, the legend goes, Stravinsky wrote the combination 1-2 on some pieces of paper, and 1-2-3 on others; he threw these notes into the air and let them land on the floor of his studio. He then randomly picked up the notes from the floor and let this random non-orderly order dictate the rhythm of The Rite. The final result is enigmatic, primitive, passionate, powerful, and, in terms of rhythm, irregularly-irregular.

I wish I were there, at the Theatre des Champs-Elyses in Paris on the night of May 29,1913, at “The Rite of Spring” premiere. The house was full — with dignitaries, art lovers, artists — corridors and stairways included. As “The Rite” began, the audience responded with initial unease, then there was a terrific uproar. It turned into a riot. Carl Van Vechten, a journalist, reported that the man behind him started to “beat rhythmically on top of my head with his fists.” A member of the orchestra reported that “everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on.”

What caused the riot, nobody knows. It might have been the primal, violent music, or the wild dancing, perhaps it was all staged as a publicity stunt. I wish I were there, at the theater, to confirm my own theory: It is the irregularly-irregular rhythm, stupid! I would tell myself. It is about our heart’s rhythm.

Imagine a world in which Stravinsky’s rhythm rules: no more predictable rhythms–no nights, mornings, afternoons; no summer, fall, winter, spring; no breakfast, lunch, dinner; no church bells tolling. Now imagine even worse–that you suddenly become acutely aware that your heartbeat lost its regularity. Instead of order, disorder! And the sense of danger, and the fear of impending death.

What gives our heart its rhythm? How is it all connected to jumping spiders, migrating butterflies and to the unity of the universe? I shall return.

Editor’s note: Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist at Aspirus and the author of “Is Life Too Long? Essays about Life, Death and Other Trivial Matters.” Contact him at smadjar@yahoo.com.