This resource is designed to help you and your class use Igor Stravinsky’s 'The Rite of Spring' to inspire music-making in the classroom.
The Rite of Spring is an extraordinary piece of music which is often performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. We have outlined the background to the piece, how to listen it and included a four-session creative project that shows you how to create your own version of the famous opening.
Please feel free to adapt the ideas below to suit the resources you have and the needs of your children.
This resource is © copyright Rachel Leach, London 2017 (see About the Author section at the bottom of the article for more information).
Resources needed for this project:
- A recording of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.We recommend you find a recording of the full piece.
- Variety of classroom percussion (ideally plenty of tuned instruments, such as chime bars, glockenspiels, xylophones)
- Paper and pens
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) and The Rite of Spring
Igor Stravinsky was born in Russia in 1882. His father was a singer with the St Petersburg Opera, and from a very young age Igor knew he wanted to be a musician when he grew up. In fact, he grew up to be one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century. He was a musical chameleon, changing his musical style every few years to fit each new challenge. He became famous in Paris in the 1910s after writing three vivid and exciting ballets. The third of these was The Rite of Spring (1913), which caused a full-scale riot in the audience on opening night and catapulted Stravinsky to international fame.
The Rite of Spring is the piece that changed music forever. Written as a ballet score, it tells the gruesome story of a pagan ritual during which a girl dances herself to death. (Don’t worry – we’ve made a more KS2-friendly version of the story below!). The piece shocked its original audience – they had simply never heard anything like it before. Stravinsky’s music often features clashing notes, jagged rhythms, and instruments playing at the extremes of their range. At first listen it is a bit baffling!
The scenario: section by section (adapted for KS2)
If we take out the final sacrifice, the story becomes all about celebrating the arrival of Spring. The Augurs of Spring are mystical officials who observe changes in nature and interpret them as being divine signs. The Sage (wise person) arrives to choose one girl to perform the ultimate ‘sun-dance’ at the end. Here is a breakdown of the whole piece:
Introduction (listen to an extract below)
- Animals, plants and flowers awaken and stretch their heads to the sky. It is the first day of spring
The Augurs of Spring – Ritual Abduction – Spring Rounds (listen to an extract below)
- Girls celebrate the arrival of spring with games and dances
Ritual of Rival Tribes – Arrival of the Sage – The Sage
- The girls split into two teams and enact a battle
- The Sage, a wise old man arrives
Dance of the Earth
- Everyone celebrates spring, the Sage, and the earth
- A calm moment
Mystic Circles of the Young Girls
- The girls play
- A girl is chosen for a special honour
Glorification of the Chosen One – Evocation of Ancestors
- The chosen girl is honoured with a martial dance
Ritual Action of the Ancestors
- The chosen girl is taken into the care of the elders
- They teach her a special dance
Sacrificial Dance (Danse Sacrale) (listen to an extract below)
- The chosen girl dances a big, energetic solo (a sun-dance)
Rite of Spring – Extracts:
Classroom activities – Listening task
Listening to music in the classroom can be difficult, but giving the pupils a task to do can improve their ability to focus.
- Begin by telling your class a little about The Rite of Spring. Talk about the beginning: Stravinsky uses a lot of simple solo tunes to create the feeling of the world waking up to spring.
- Play a recording of the opening to the class (Track 1: Introduction, which is about 3 minutes long. You can hear a 30 second extract in track 1 of the playlist above) and ask them to listen with their eyes closed. Each instrument represents a flower, plant, leaf, or animal bending its head up to the first day of spring sun.
- Give out paper and coloured pens. As you listen again, ask your children to draw the scene. Challenge them to quickly draw a flower, leaf, plant, or animal for each melody/instrument they hear. Warn them that by the end of the 3 minutes their page should be full!
- Look at their artwork; perhaps play the movement again as you wander around the classroom like in an art gallery. You might like to give the children more time to finish their pictures (keep the music playing for inspiration) and then make them into a display.
Creative project: ‘Awakening’ and ‘Augurs of Spring’
The beginning of The Rite of Spring is a musical portrayal of the world waking up to spring and then the tremendous excitement of the first sunny day. By using a few simple rules, it’s quite easy to create your own version of this famous introduction and dance.
Session 1 – Awakening
- Begin by telling your class a little about The Rite of Spring and explain that they are going to compose, in groups, their own version of the very opening. Explain further that Stravinsky uses a lot of simple solo tunes to create feeling of the world waking up to spring (or remind them of the listening task).
- Here’s the real opening bassoon tune:
It is made up of just 5 notes:…and one repeating idea (here it is with all the ‘twiddles’ taken out and simple words added):
Stravinsky changes the rhythm of this idea and shifts it around so that every time you hear it it sounds slightly different. Like this:
“I look up to the sun, I look up to the SUN, I look up TO the sun, I look up to the SUN”
- Try saying this with your children emphasising the words in BOLD – emphasise them by stretching the word out a little and saying it louder. Explain the concept behind this: different words/notes are emphasised each time but that’s the only thing that changes. It’s rather like saying the same sentence in several different ways.
- Using the pitches above on a xylophone, ask a volunteer to come forward and create their own fragment of melody, using any combination of those five notes. Now ask them to perform it again stressing a different note just as you did with the words. Can they do it a third time with a different note emphasised? It may help to add words to their initial idea and say them with the group. By doing this, they have just done exactly what Stravinsky does during that very famous opening (you can hear the opening in track 1 of the playlist above).
- Split your class into small working groups. Ask each group to use the same five pitches and create a similar small ‘cell’ of melody, and then to experiment with altering the stress of it. If you are short of instruments, groups can do this using their voice or by creating a rhythm on unpitched percussion or body percussion. It also doesn’t matter if the groups have different notes, as long as they only use a maximum of five pitches – using different pitches will actually sound more like Stravinsky!
- Bring the class back together and have a quick brainstorm on the board of “spring sounds.” You are looking for sounds that you might actually hear in the countryside early on a spring morning. e.g. birdsong, rustling leaves, water flowing in a stream. Challenge each group to add at least one of these spring sound effects underneath their melody, using unpitched percussion or body percussion. Make sure that everyone has a role in each piece.
- When this is achieved, hear each group in turn and encourage the class to give constructive feedback. Now challenge the class to put their group pieces together to make one bigger piece, whilst still maintaining the same feeling of gradual awakening.
Taking it further:
Listen again to the opening of The Rite of Spring and ask your class to describe the shape of the music. They may notice that the texture gradually fills up until, when it is loud and busy, it abruptly stops, and after a pause of silence the original bassoon tune is heard alone once more. Choose one tune for this completely solo role at the beginning and end and try, possibly by appointing a conductor, to re-create Stravinsky’s shape.
Some of Stravinsky’s solo ‘cells’ really jump out of the texture and shout. Encourage the class to choose a couple of their ideas to do this
Remember to write down what you’ve done for next time!
Session 2 – Spring Dance (pounding chord)
In this extremely famous section (often called ‘The Augurs of Spring’) a pounding chord is heard with unexpected accents (sudden loud beats). You can listen to the beginning of this in track 2 of the playlist above. Stravinsky then creates a modern version of a rondo*, with smaller fragmented ideas placed in between occurrences of this pounding chord.
*Rondo is a structure whereby one idea keeps returning and contrasting ‘episodes’ are placed in between each ‘return’. A – B – A – C – A – D – A etc
1. Begin by asking your class to tap a quick pulse and count to 8 softly over and over as they do so, like this:
2. Show them the grid below and ask them to count and tap again but to shout out or emphasise the numbers that are large:
This is a tricky task but it will be very impressive if you can do it neatly, so do take some time to practise it. You could use this as a warm up, or perhaps even as a device for getting attention in other lessons.
We have created a clap-along Youtube video for you and your pupils to practise this rhythm with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s quite difficult, so it may be best to stick to a slower speed and do it without the video at first.
3. When the pattern is secure, transfer this onto instruments. Stravinsky uses clashing notes so your class can choose to play whatever they like during this bit! If you want to sound just like Stravinsky though, and have a lot of pitched instruments, use any combination of these notes: F, A, B, C, D, E.
4. Create a class version by following these simple rules:
• Something must play on every count – softly
• The large numbers must be accented and really loud!
5. This may take time to get right. Start slowly to make sure everyone is accenting their notes in the right places, then build up speed when secure. Try to keep a steady beat – it will be tempting to speed up! You may wish to appoint a conductor to keep the pace steady.
Session 3 – Spring Dance (episodes)
1. Begin by recapping your pounding chord from session two. Explain that Stravinsky returns to this idea several times and creates short contrasting ‘episodes’ in between each occurrence. His ‘episodes’ use the following tiny ideas:
a. The ‘this way, that way’ idea:
b. ‘moans’ – one note repeated, followed by a fall away:
c. a fragment of melody:
2. Demonstrate these ideas to the class. Spit into small working groups and challenge each group to create their own short ‘episode’ using one of these ideas. (The ‘this way that way’ idea can be transferred to unpitched percussion if you are short of pitched instruments). If a group finishes quickly, they can add another of these idea fragments to their short piece.
3. When this is achieved, hear each group and give feedback. Here are some suggestions for developing their ideas further:
- Stravinsky changes the number of repeated notes at the beginning of his ‘moans’ and melodies
- He also shifts the emphasis around just like in the opening of the piece
- The ‘This way that way’ idea is constant, but can you put accented loud notes against it?
4. End this session by hearing each group one more time, and fixing their ideas. You don’t need to put the groups together at this stage but do encourage each team to keep a record of what they have created.
Session 4 – Spring Dance (Rondo structure)
1. Begin the session with a recap:
- Put the ‘pounding chord pattern’ (from session 2) back together as a full class and name it ‘A’
- Split back into groups and allow a short amount of time to remember the group pieces. These are going to be your ‘episodes’
2. Explain that Stravinsky uses a musical shape called ‘rondo’ for his ideas. A rondo is a shape with a repeating section (your ‘A’ section) and contrasting ‘episodes’ in between: A – B – A – C – A – D – A etc.
A simple game to demonstrate this is as follows:
Whole class say the name of the class
One child says their name
Whole class say the name of the class
One child says their name etc.
3. Hear each group piece and decide as a full class on an order for the groups, so that you have something like this:
A – group 1 – A – group 2 – A – group 3 – A etc.
As you make up this order, encourage your class to think about the overall shape. Should the ‘episodes’ get louder/more exciting as they go along, or softer/shorter? Should you end with ‘A’ or with an episode, or perhaps with something else?
4. When your structure is agreed on and written on the board, practise it until you can play straight through without any gaps. You now have your own version of Stravinsky’s opening to The Rite of Spring!
Taking it further:
• Practise the ‘Awakening’ piece (session 1) and ‘Spring Dance’ piece (sessions 2, 3 & 4) back to back to create the same shape as Stravinsky. Perform this to another class with your artwork from the listening task as a backdrop
• Danse Sacrale: The very end of The Rite of Spring contains perhaps the most complex music in the whole score (you can hear an extract of this section in track 3 of the playlist above). It requires the musicians to count to a long series of different numbers at speed. Usually music is based around the same number counted over and over – e.g. it is ‘in 4’. In the Danse Sacrale every count is a different number, and this will makes for a fun and extremely challenging counting game for your class!
Show this grid to your class:
Explain that the numbers represent the length of the bars during this section of Rite of Spring.
Ask your class to count through the grid like this:
1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3, 4 etc.
Challenge them to clap on each ‘1’. It might help if you have the numbers up on the board and point as you go along. If you prefer not to use numbers in the grid, you could recreate it with shapes representing the numbers: a line for 2, a triangle for 3, a square for 4, a pentagon for 5 – some children may find this easier.
For the ultimate challenge, try to count out loud to the recording but be careful – Stravinsky rarely has sounds on all of the beats and there are accents and cross-rhythms to put you off!
This is a great exercise in counting but also in teamwork and score reading. It shows very neatly all the mental processes that occur when performing, including the concentration, the lapses of concentration, the effect of stress and how the brain plays tricks on us!
Sharing your work
We would love to see or hear your performances and compositions for this project. If you would like us to share any of your work, you can send in any audio, images or video to [email protected] (please send any large files via wetransfer or other filesharing service rather than direct email).
About the Author
Rachel Leach is one of the UK’s leading composers and animateurs. For 20 years she has been devising and leading education projects with the UK’s top orchestras and opera companies, delivering creative projects to a huge range of people across London, the UK and the world. She regularly presents BrightSparks schools concerts for the LPO and is the creative mentor on our flagship KS2 project: Creative Classrooms. www.rachelleachmusic.com/