The Rite Stuff



“All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”—Cormac McCarthy, The Road

While our lives may no longer be closely tied to the same rituals that developed and defined world cultures, we remain drawn to a prescribed concept of order and meaning.  Often it is easy to identify: marriage, birth, death, or milestone career event.  But our lives are also filled with small rituals that we engage with on a daily basis. For myself, making morning coffee and taking daily dog walks number among those that are the important small rituals of my life.

As a musician, I also recognize many rituals of my craft, formal and otherwise.  Like every performer, there is a day for the first recital, new instrument, and winning an audition.  The little rituals also abound, and may include putting new strings on an instrument, rosining the bow, or mastering the next in a line of etudes.  These types of events can easily be taken for granted, yet provide meaning to the very fabric of a musician’s existence.

It is also worth remembering that every encounter with a piece of music is ritual.  The first experience with a major work can represent a journey, both in terms of the individual musician, and the collective participation of learning a new composition with colleagues.  Taking a piece from first reading to a concert can be analogous to the life journey.  It will contain celebratory moments, struggle, and triumph. 

“Only when we join together does this work have any meaning” – Ali Akbar Khan

As a conductor of a collegiate orchestra, perhaps I am more sensitive to this function of music.  Students certainly may behave and react differently than seasoned professionals when confronting the sublime or the unknown.  But there is something bigger and universal when we intersect the big pieces, the GIANTS of the repertoire.  The reason lies with the affect elicited from the listener and performer.  Those works represent BIG ritual.

It’s fairly easy to locate these pieces.  The composer names are often recognizable.  They are the great works by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and many others.  They are the Ninth Symphony, The Resurrection Symphony, Ein Heldenleben, and the Pathetique (either Tchaikovsky’s or Beethoven’s).  The musician approaches these works with respect, care and a sense of awe.  Whether approached as a developing musician or an established veteran, the aim is clear.  The mission of performing these masterpieces is focused and reverent. 

That’s quite a preface for my journey these past 4 weeks, introducing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps) to my students as well as the audience.  Interestingly it is a piece about ritual itself, set in an imagined pagan Russia.  But it also represents a major rite of passage for all orchestral musicians.  It is a work that does not come around often.  It is filled with seemingly insurmountable issues of instrumentation, rhythmic complexity and technical demands.  Yet the music speaks far beyond these surface issues, cuts to the core of human existence.  It is emotionally wired to the something deep at the center of human experience.

“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself”—Joseph Campbell

Taking on overwhelming odds, facing an uncertain outcome, and challenging oneself to the very limit is how the Hero’s Journey is often described.  Undertaking these tasks as a musician defines what it means to live as an artist.  By taking on the adventure, accepting the risks and completing the task, we return with something to share.  A story for the tribe: a concert for an audience.  A ritual worthy of every musician. 

And now, the gory details:

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring Turns 100: A joint celebration with the University of Utah Philharmonia and the Utah State University Symphony.

Two performances:

Tuesday, 2/12 7:30 p.m. Kingsbury Hall on the U of U Campus, Sergio Bernal, conductor Also featuring Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto with Keenan Reesor, piano

Saturday, 2/23 7:30 p.m. Kent Concert Hall on the USU Campus Robert Baldwin, conductor. Also featuring the Bloch’s Concerto Grosso #1.


Copyright 2013, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat


5 thoughts on “The Rite Stuff

  1. Implicit in this post is one of the best arguments possible for music education.

    When I first arrived in Liberia, the rituals of the culture around me were completely impenetrable With time, experience and guidance, while I couldn’t participate fully, I understood what was happening, could follow the “language” of the rituals and appreciate them.

    The analogy seems so clear to me. While I can’t participate in the ritual of performance as fully as the musician, I can learn to follow along, to know the language of the score and the context of its composition. When that happens, the ritual applause at the end is not just for the musicians, but for all of us.

  2. Dr. Baldwin, I’m pleased to have finally found your blogs! Inspirational stuff.

    I love the idea of musician’s lives being filled with ritual. When I think of my own musicianship it’s much more a lifestyle or obsession or a collection of rituals — and less a career, job, or hobby.

    I must make a differentiation between preparation and performance, though. Certainly I put much care into my preparation for any given concert, and all the more so for the big, cosmic programs. When performing, however, I can’t afford to “reverence the repertoire”; to think of living up to Beethoven leads quickly to total paralysis.

    And besides, the cracks are how the light gets in, as you’ve recently mentioned.

    • Hi James! Great to hear from you again! I agree. My use of “reverence” was more the approach and also the fact that no musician likes to play these pieces in a careless or unprepared manner. Give it its due. Hope you are well and playing up a storm!

  3. Pingback: Before Stravinsky, Chop Wood, Carry Water. After Stravinsky, Chop Wood Carry Water. | Before the Downbeat

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