Spring has inspired some of the world's most identifiable music, from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons."

(Soundbite of "The Four Seasons")

SIMON: To Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony."

(Soundbite of "Pastoral Symphony")

SIMON: And Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

(Soundbite of "Rite of Spring")

SIMON: But for Stravinsky, spring isn't a season of joyous rebirth, but one of pulsating, violent energy. When this ballet score premiered with the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1913, it caused an uproar. The dancers could barely hear the music over the hissing and catcalls from the audience. Here's how Mr. Stravinsky described the occasion. He said, When the curtain opened I was unprepared for the explosion. I left the hall in a rage. I have never been that angry. Today Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" is considered a modern masterpiece. Maestro Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and she conducted it with the BSO recently and musicians from the Peabody Institute. Thanks very much for being back with us, Maestro.

Ms. MARIN ALSOP (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra): Great to be here.

SIMON: I'm getting just a little angry sitting here...

Ms. ALSOP: Getting very excited. It's wonderful.

SIMON: ...listening to it. So why was there such a hostile reaction?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, I mean this was a groundbreaking piece in 1913. I mean music was starting to get more complex, more self-indulgent. You think of Mahler. You think of Rachmaninoff around this time. And then suddenly you hear this music.

(Soundbite of "Rite of Spring")

Ms. ALSOP: Just from the little excerpt, the brutality of this, the unconventional harmonies, the accents - everything about it is unattractive. And music has not been unattractive in its history, really, thus far.

(Soundbite of "Rite of Spring")

SIMON: It begins with what I guess we can now fairly identify as a deceptive quiet, doesn't it? Maybe - in fact, why don't we listen to that?

(Soundbite of "Rite of Spring")

Ms. ALSOP: You look at the bassoon who's playing this opening piece, it looks like someone's strangling this bassoon player. It's like the highest notes on the instrument. You have to come in really soft and it does sound a little bit Eastern. And for a piece that we now know is so highly rhythmic, it's almost impossible to tell even where the bar line is. Where's the beat? It was a ballet originally, and the dancers are trying to dance in 4/4 and the piece is in 5/8, you know; I mean, so there was a bit of a conflict there.

SIMON: Stravinsky apparently wrote, What I was trying to convey was the surge of spring, the magnificent upsurge of nature reborn.

Ms. ALSOP: I do feel, you know, it's just almost like the emerging of life from the swampy texture. And I think you can tell that nothing good is going to be coming out of this swamp whatsoever.

SIMON: Does the music, and for that matter the ballet, attempt to tell, in part, a particular narrative about spring?

Ms. ALSOP: It's interesting because in Stravinsky's life Russian folktale is very, very important. And he's just come off writing a ballet score to "The Firebird" and these kind of very big Russian tales. So this idea of the ritual of springtime and the sacrificing of the young virgin in order for spring to blossom, that is the subtext to this storyline. So it's a very old storyline, but the amazing thing to me about this piece really, and Stravinsky, is that he's taking everything we knew and just turning it on its head. And he does it so brilliantly that it's impossible not to see. I mean I went back and read some of the reviews. I mean if I ever had a bad review I felt much better after reading the reviews of this piece. I mean they were brutal, absolutely scathing.

You know, this person has no right to even put a pen to paper to write music. This is nothing but cacophony and all wrong notes everywhere. And so I thought to myself, look, if Stravinsky could survive, anybody could survive this.

SIMON: Let's hear a section called "Round Dance," if we could.

(Soundbite of "Rite of Spring")

Ms. ALSOP: You can hear the Russian quality, can't you?

SIMON: Yes, absolutely, in this section. Yeah. Musically, what do you hear here?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, there's this very hypnotic - it almost puts you in a trance, this section.

(Soundbite of "Rite of Spring")

Ms. ALSOP: Very quiet, mesmerizing and then suddenly...

(Soundbite of "Rite of Spring")

Ms. ALSOP: ...this explosion.

(Soundbite of "Rite of Spring")

Ms. ALSOP: The picture I have in my mind really are these lumbering dinosaurs. You know, this part of evolution and...

SIMON: You kind of feel the brontosaurus feet.

Ms. ALSOP: Exactly. Really, really heavy creatures, and Stravinsky calls for the brass to glissando, which means slide.

(Soundbite of "Rite of Spring")

Ms. ALSOP: And to me, that should almost make you feel sick.

SIMON: The piece is divided into two main sections, "The Adoration of the Earth," and then part two is called "The Sacrifice." Does the piece change directions in a sense?

Ms. ALSOP: It does. And what's interesting is you would think that the section called "The Sacrifice," part two of the piece, would be the more brutal section. But it begins - it's almost an alien texture at the opening of part two. And it's very quiet for a very long time. And I think this is a brilliant move on Stravinsky's part, because he's going to set up this unbelievable section which is called "The Sacrificial Dance." This was the very first score I ever got when I wanted to become a conductor. This is really the measure of a conductor, because it's so challenging. It's all mixed meters. All the accents are in the wrong place. And of course it's a huge part of the repertory. So this is the defining moment for a conductor.

(Soundbite of "Rite of Spring")

SIMON: At what point did audiences and critics begin to understand that they had heard something extraordinary?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, there were a few critics at the time that could really see the brilliance of this piece and how forward-thinking it was. But it really wasn't for a couple of decades until the piece developed a respect. It was considered so brutal and so primitive that it almost couldn't be accepted. And then, of course, the piece started being performed without the ballet as part of the concert repertory. And that gave it an ability to stand on its own. But that took a while, because it was so challenging for orchestras.

SIMON: I wonder too - it came out, what, four years before the Russian revolution, and the year before World War I. And I wonder if the cataclysmic events that were roving over that part of the world and much of the world at that point in a peculiar way put audiences and maybe even critics in touch with the music in a way that they might not have when they first heard it.

(Soundbite of "Rite of Spring")

Ms. ALSOP: It's so interesting, isn't it, because I think music and art, I mean it has the ability to become just a little snapshot of the entire era. And in many ways I think music especially can predict and foreshadow what's about to happen.

(Soundbite of "Rite of Spring")

SIMON: How does the piece conclude, and in what tone?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, it's an absolute frenzy, really. That's basically what happens. I mean "The Sacrificial Dance," which takes the material from earlier that we've heard, you know - (makes percussion sounds) - all this crazy stuff, and it just - it keeps spinning around. The horns are screaming out. The trumpets are yelling. The bass drum's going wild. I mean it is just, to me, one of the most thrilling parts of the repertoire ever heard. To this day it's still exciting.

(Soundbite of "Rite of Spring")

Ms. ALSOP: And yet the ending is something unexpected. It takes the listener very, very much by surprise. It's just - the flutes are a little vaporizing moment.

(Soundbite of "Rite of Spring")

Ms. ALSOP: And then a big smack.

(Soundbite of "Rite of Spring")

Ms. ALSOP: And you're done.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIMON: It's a pleasure to have you back. Thank you so much.

Ms. ALSOP: Great to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and we've been listening to her performance of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and musicians from the Peabody Institute. And you can hear more of Maestro Alsop's complete performance of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and other conversations that we've had with the maestro in the past about music in all of its seasons if you come to our Web site. That's at

Well, I think we have a few moments to contemplate the magnificence of the music.

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