Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is a trip to the depths of tribal memory taking us into the symbolic realities of ancient myth.
Igor Stravinsky: Russian composer
17 Jun 1882, 10:00. Oranienbaum, (now Lomonosov) Russia.
Asbolus 15 Cancer 40
conjunct Moon 14 Cancer 42 (conjunct Mercury 11 Cancer 13 retrograde)
sextile Uranus 14 Virgo 43
sextile Neptune 17 Taurus 13
conjunct midpoint of Uranus and Neptune at 16 Cancer 13
Cyllarus 15 Cancer 14
conjunct Asbolus and moon
Chariklo 24 Libra 58
trine sun 25 Gemini 58
sextile Mars 22 Leo 07
square Venus 25 Cancer 21
Nessus 26 Capricorn 07
Opposite Venus 25 Cancer 21
Hylonome 27 Scorpio 46
Conjunct moon’s north node 28 Scorpio 25
Stravinsky’s music is loved for its cool, neo-classical modernism and its jazzy, syncopated rhythms. Not what you would expect from someone with a bunch of planets in Cancer. But although Cancerians feel deeply, they’re not going to show you, preferring instead to maintain their composure behind a hard protective shell. This is after all, the sign of the crab.
While Stravinsky was born with the sun in Gemini, it is the moon in Cancer that focuses his chart in many more ways:
- The moon is backed by Mercury giving him the childlike joy of a master storyteller.
- It receives sextiles from revolutionary Uranus in Virgo and from Neptune in Taurus giving his music great sensuality and danceability.
- In addition, the moon is at the midpoint of Uranus and Neptune, which, according to Ebertin (‘The Combination of Stellar Influences’), gives inspiration through psychic states and an openness to those who have passed on to other realms.
- And to cap it all, the moon in Cancer is in a close conjunction with two centaurs, Asbolus and Cyllarus giving him access to the worlds of mythology.
Cancer is often to do with childhood and the relationship with the mother. But Stravinsky’s childhood home sounds like hell. Third of a family of four boys, bullied by his elder brothers, afraid of his father’s uncontrollable temper while his attitude to his mother was “governed merely by a sense of duty”. (Eric Walter-White ‘Stravinsky – the composer and his works’) This loneliness and emotional deprivation only seems to have been alleviated by his relationship with his younger brother, Gury who sadly was to die young.
His escape was music. However, his obvious abilities in this area were met (according to Stravinsky’s later recollection) with disdain from his parents as it was their wish that he study law. However, by an excellent turn of fate, at university he met and befriended the son of the great composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. And when he showed some of his compositions to Rimsky-Korsakov, the elder composer agreed to take him on as a private student.
The year was 1902. Stravinsky was 20 years old. His solar arc directed sun was conjunct his moon and Asbolus, sextiling his Uranus and Neptune. His father having died a few months earlier, he was now free to follow the path of music.
That’s the way it goes sometimes. Life and circumstances may deny us our deepest needs, leading us to look for their fulfilment elsewhere. For example, a lonely unloved child may create an imaginary caring family. And while Stravinsky was denied the maternal nurturing he needed, thanks to the influence of the centaur Asbolus conjunct his moon in Cancer, he found it in the symbolic realms of mythology as he forged his own connection with tradition.
“It’s one of nature’s ways that we often feel closer to distant generations than to the generation immediately preceding us.” Igor Stravinsky
His first major success was with the music for the ballet he composed for Sergei Diaghilev’s ‘Ballets Russes’ in Paris, ‘The Firebird’, based on a Russian folk tale. The music glows and sparkles with sumptuous orchestral effects, reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade’. The story takes the hero, Prince Ivan who strays into the magical realm of the evil sorcerer, Kashchei the Immortal, and with the help of the firebird, frees the thirteen princesses, finds the egg that contains Kashchei’s soul and destroys it, freeing all the creatures that have been held captive.
Magical realms! Evil sorcerers! Putting on my psychoanalytic hat for a moment, this is a perfect way to dispose of the introjected presence of an angry father.
Stravinsky’s next ballet was ‘Petrushka’. We’re in St Petersburg in the early nineteenth century at the ‘Shrovetide Fair’. A puppet comes to life and falls in love with a ballerina. There’s jealousy and murder. Maybe this is Stravinsky’s Venus opposed by the vengeful centaur Nessus and offered transcendence by a square from Chariklo. With a Cancerian moon, Stravinsky would not have been one to wear his heart on his sleeve in the manner of say, Gustav Mahler. As we have said, Cancer prefers to protect its emotional ‘soft centre’, keeping it private.
But it’s with the ‘The Rite of Spring’, the third ballet he composed for Diaghilev that Stravinsky really comes into his own.
As with other pieces from this period, the genesis of ‘The Rite’ came to him in a vision. Well, if you had the moon, Mercury and Asbolus at the midpoint of Uranus and Neptune, you might be given to visions yourself. Stravinsky describes it thus: “One day [in 1910], when I was finishing the last pages of L’Oiseau de Feu [The Firebird] in Saint Petersburg, I had a fleeting vision … I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of Spring. Such was the theme of the Sacre du printemps [The Rite of Spring].”
The subtitle of the piece ‘Pictures of Pagan Russia in two parts’ makes Stravinsky’s intentions clear. Having taken us to a world of fairy-tale magic in ‘The Firebird’ and to a puppet-show of love and betrayal in a traditional fairground in ‘Petrushka’, Stravinsky now transports us back to the tribal history of ancient Russia. To do this he had the help of the painter and set designer Nikolai Roerich who was an expert in folk art and ancient rituals.
This is the deepest, most archetypal core of Cancer. The moon in its own sign conjunct Asbolus creates an alternative history that might not have happened but is psychologically and emotionally real. Through the music of ‘The Rite’, Stravinsky reconnects with the past at the most primal level with such a terrible intensity that still resonates through music history over 100 years later.
“These are big prehistoric memories of Russia!” Leonard Bernstein
For astrologer and composer Dane Rudhyar, Stravinsky was unsettled by what he had composed in The Rite, describing him thus in his book ‘The Magic of Tone and the Art of Music’ (Shambhalla, Boulder and London, 1982. Page 125): “a neo-primitivist, inwardly frightened by what he had released and about to turn away into the mental security of Neo-Classicism.”
In addition, there is the influence of Hylonome conjunct his moon’s north node. Hylonome was a female centaur in love with another centaur, Cyllarus. There is a battle and Cyllarus is mortally wounded by a spear. Hylonome tries to save his life, putting her mouth to his to prevent his spirit from escaping, but without success. She then takes the spear that slayed her beloved and kills herself with it.
In the myth, Hylonome accepts death, just as ‘the chosen one’ in ‘The Rite’ sacrifices herself instead of trying to escape her fate.
Stravinsky only needed to do this once. After ‘The Rite’, he never needed to go so deeply into the past, preferring to celebrate the tribal in a less violent way as in ‘Les Noces’, which dramatizes a Russian peasant wedding. Then in his neo-classical period he explores ancient Greek themes and legends in a cooler, less Dionysian manner in pieces such as ‘Apollon Musagète’, ‘Oedipus Rex’, ‘Perséphone’, and ‘Orpheus’, choosing the ancestors that suited him to create his own probable past.
In his later years his relationship with tradition changed as he grew out of his Cancerian lunar unconsciousness into the solar consciousness of Gemini. This is a less intense, more playful Stravinsky, more interested in the intellectual games of musical structure. His Gemini sun at the head of a yod formation from Hylonome in Scorpio and Nessus in Capricorn also comes out in the humorously bitchy comments he makes in his writings about others in the music business.
The music of these years is less easy to connect with for many. Tonality is less in evidence. Textures are sparser. But the jazz rhythms are still there, and there are still echoes of the immediacy and barbarity of ‘The Rite’ that liberated Stravinsky’s genius and changed forever the course of western classical music.
Listen to the complete music of the Rite of Spring here:
To see a brilliant modern version of the ballet choreographed by Pina Bausch, here
2 Nov 2021