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Le Sacre and Pierre Monteux: An Unknown Debt

The late Pierre Monteux—born one hundred years ago April 4—has been justly acclaimed for his part in the premiere of Le Sacre du printemps, directing an orchestra that frequently could not hear itself over the audience’s noisy protests. But his contributions to the score two months earlier may be as important as the conducting feat. Without intending to diminish Monteux’s glory on that occasion, one should acknowledge that his mastery of the score was less than unique, since a colleague, with the Restoration Comedy name of Rhené Baton [sic, in Monteux’s letters], was also prepared for the task and in fact led three of the seven performances that the Ballets Russes gave in its 1913 season.

The Company was in Berlin when Stravinsky completed the music, in November, 1912, and Monteux, who had thought the composer “raving mad”1 when he played parts of it at the piano in Monte Carlo seven months before, telegraphed asking his help with the piano rehearsals. Dame Marie Rambert has described Stravinsky’s arrival at one of the Berlin sessions:

Hearing the way his music was being played, he blazed up, pushed aside the fat German pianist, nick-named “Kolossal” by Diaghilev, and proceeded to play twice as fast as we had been doing and twice as fast as we could possibly dance. He stamped his feet on the floor and banged his fist on the piano and sang and shouted….2

During the next three months Stravinsky continued to coach the dancers, pianists, conductors, and Nijinsky, who was composing the choreography, meeting with them in all of the larger cities on their tour. But in Budapest, the first stop after Berlin, Stravinsky happened to attend a poor performance of The Firebird, blamed its shortcomings on Monteux, and raised a tremendous row. Fortunately Diaghilev was able not only to appease the conductor’s affronted feelings but also to persuade him to do the same for Stravinsky’s, in a letter that was both face-saving and reconciliatory:

…I was so stunned by the reproaches that you addressed to me a while ago that I tendered my resignation to M. Diaghilev. You hold me responsible for playing The Firebird under bad conditions, but what could I do with a contract that obliges me to conduct every performance?… My admiration and devotion, however, are unshaken…. (Letter from Monteux in the Hotel Europa to Stravinsky in the Hotel Hungaria, January 4, 1913.)

Another letter, from Nijinsky to Stravinsky, gives a notion of the difficulties that the former encountered in preparing the new ballet while at the same time fulfilling a heavy schedule of performances. The letter further reveals that Nijinsky anticipated the conflict at the premiere which so surprised and angered the composer:

Dear Igor, Since our departure from Vienna I have been able to make five rehearsals. This is not very many, of course, considering how much remains to be done, but with the burden of work that we have, and with these tiring moves from town to town, it was not possible to do more…. I must keep my health, after all, and dance well at the performances…. We have composed almost everything through the games and dances in the ring and the game of abduction…. Now I know what Le Sacre du printemps will be when everything is as we both want it: new, beautiful, and utterly different—but for the ordinary viewer a jolting and emotional experience…. We go to Dresden today and from there to London…. I kiss your hand, Vaslav. (Hotel Hauffe, Leipzig, January 25, 1913.)

Stravinsky went to London, too, and supervised the rehearsals there until mid-February, when he returned to Clarens to complete the full score. In late March, little more than two weeks after the last measures of the Danse sacrale had been sent to the publisher, Monteux conducted some orchestra rehearsals of the piece in Paris. The report that he gave to the composer afterward deserves a place in the annals of twentieth-century music:

After my first telegram you will have understood that since I am not yet rehearsing in the hall of the theater I cannot say what Le Sacre will be like when the orchestra is in the pit. But to compare it to The Firebird and Petrushka, which I have rehearsed in the same hall, Le Sacre sounds at least as good…. The passages…which will possibly need some modification are the following: at 38, measure 5, the horns and violas playing the melody are scarcely audible unless the rest of the orchestra plays pianissimo. At 35, measures 3 and 4, it is impossible to hear a single note of the flute above the 4 horns and 4 trumpets “FF,” and the violins “FF,” since only the first flute plays the theme during all of this noise. At 41, measures 1 and 2, the sonority of the tubas is weak despite “FF,” the seventh and eighth horns do not sound at all in the low register, and the trombones are very loud in comparison with the first six horns. I have added the fourth horn to the seventh and eighth but without attaining equilibrium for the four groups. One hears:

1. MF

2. Nothing

3. FF

4. F

At 65, measure 3, the first four horns, with the theme, are barely heard. They play “F” but are muted….

I have had two rehearsals for The Firebird, strings and winds separately, the same for Petrushka, then a full rehearsal for each work. For the Sacre, I have had two string rehearsals, three wind rehearsals, and two full rehearsals. Yesterday I finally rehearsed all three works. What a pity that you could not be here, above all that you could not be present for the explosion of Le Sacre. I thought of you constantly and regretted your absence, but I know that you are very busy. Now it will be for the month of May…. Please give my amitiés to Ravel. (Paris, March 30, 1913.)

Not the least astonishing feature of this letter is the absence of any reference to the music’s difficulties; moreover, the number of rehearsals would be considered modest even today for an orchestra playing the Sacre for the first time, but inevitably familiar with the music. Even more remarkable, however, is Monteux’s diagnosis of the weak places in the instrumentation, and the directness with which he discusses the matter in his letter, as if to say, “This, not aesthetic judgments, is my métier.” But since he is also the first to be hearing the actual sound of the music, and since some comment of a general kind is therefore incumbent on him, he saves for last that single-barreled but never bettered word “explosion.”

Stravinsky’s reaction is no less amazing. On the authority of this letter he rewrote the first of the four problem passages, transferring the horn and viola music to trumpets and three solo cellos, a change that required a new balance in the orchestral ecology in every other part as well. (The holograph of the full score preserves both the canceled and the revised versions.) To remedy the second problem passage, the composer added another flute to the solo part, as well as an oboe, a piccolo clarinet, and, during the final rehearsals in May, a piccolo trumpet playing an octave lower. In the third troublesome place, he joined two more horns to the three that Monteux could not hear, but without overcoming a weakness that still exists except when artificially corrected by recording engineers. The fourth fault was eliminated simply by dispensing with the mutes.

Stravinsky’s absence from the rehearsals remains a mystery. True, he had finished an added section of the Sacre only a day or two before receiving the letter, and he and Ravel were working against a deadline to complete their arrangements of parts of Khovanshchina. Yet ordinarily Stravinsky was ready to travel almost anywhere to assist at rehearsals of his music, and he had already interrupted work on the Sacre five times to come to Nijinsky’s aid. Why, then, did the composer not go to Paris to attend at least one orchestral rehearsal of what he knew to be his most important creation? Could the absence have had an emotional cause, in the sense that he feared his first contact with the actuality of the music? Did he want an intermediary to experience it first, a conductor whom he could trust, such as “The Little King” (which the composer, borrowing from the comic strip, used affectionately to call Monteux)? Admittedly this was unlike Stravinsky. But so was Le Sacre unlike anything that he (or anyone else) had ever wrought.

  1. 1

    Dance Index, Stravinsky issue, New York, 1948.

  2. 2

    Quicksilver, Macmillan, London, 1972. April 3, 1975

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