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DEAD!: the scariest chord ever put to score

Kate Ferenchak explains the horror of the final notes played in the ballet “The Rite of Spring.”

Happy (belated) Halloween! Though the day has passed, I love this holiday. I love the fall vibes, the warm colors, the aroma of leaf detritus… it all makes me smile. This time of year is prime for this sort of spooky stuff.

Among the various ways I celebrate the holiday is by putting on some tunes to set the mood. Though, the “spooky music genre” really doesn’t stretch that far, does it? One might think of ambiance, just spooky piano notes in a minor key plinked over and over again accompanied by the occasional wolf howl. Or the “Great Pumpkin Waltz” or “Spooky Scary Skeletons” come to mind, and if so, you’re cool.

In terms of classical music, what’s the scariest piece you’ve ever heard? One might recall Mussogorsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” or Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue,” Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” or Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” If you’re a little more well-versed, you might even think of Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead,” Tartini’s “Devil Trill Sonata” or the grandfather of all death-imposing music: “Dies Irae”. When I think of what truly unsettles me, one piece comes to mind.

The night I watched and listened to Igor Stravinsky’s, Sergei Diaghilev’s and Vaslav Nijinksy’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” for the first time, I had nightmares– and I don’t get nightmares often. This piece has transcended the status as merely an opus; it has become a phenomenon in the arts world because of the legends that surround its infamous premiere in May 1913. Though, I am not here to talk about its mysterious and chaotic rise to fame. I’m here to talk about the moment in the ballet that gave me those nightmares and shook me to my core: its very last chord.

To understand the weight behind the final notation of the piece, I must give a brief history of the piece itself. “The Rite of Spring” was written by Igor Stravinksy for a ballet proposed by Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of Ballet Russes, and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinksy. Back in the early 20th century, everyone– especially those in Paris where the Rite premiered– loved the idea of Russians being portrayed as being a part of a ruthless, primal civilization (except the Russians, probably).

Stravinsky, riding off the immense success of his ballet “The Firebird,” decided he would crank up the primitive themes for his next composition. Thus, with the collaboration of Nijinksy, “The Rite of Spring”– or “Le Sacre du Printemps”– was born. This piece was nothing like Paris had seen before. Most of the rich folks who attended the premier expected something more akin to “Firebird.” But, obviously, “The Rite” diverged expectations.

The story of “The Rite” is made of two parts: “The Adoration of the Earth” and “The Sacrifice.” “The Adoration of the Earth” is about two rival tribes who come together to celebrate the coming of spring through various rituals and games. “The Sacrifice” is about the selection, glorification and death of a young virgin to be sacrificed to the pagan gods to ensure a healthy spring. This is performed through a dance before a group of wolf-skinned priests who wait to apprehend her body.

This is no “Danse des Petits Cygnes,” either. She throws herself in the air and makes contorted movements as she becomes more exhausted. She hurts her leg midway through the dance but pushes through because if the dance ends with death, what does it matter? She even pounds the floor with her fist as if to say that she hates she must die, despite the noble cause. It ends when her neck snaps from her exertion and she falls dead. The final chord comes after her death, when the men raise her up to the gods and the bloodthirsty priests begin to rush to her body. Suddenly, the stage goes dark. The final chord exemplifies this terror in its primal, wild portrayal.

So let’s talk about the chord itself. The chord is made up of several instruments, the leading ones being the piccolo, tuba, trumpets/cornets, trombone, güiro and timpani. It’s dissonant, meaning it was deliberately written to sound unpleasant on the ears. Typically, in music, dissonant chords eventually resolve to a better-sounding chord, perhaps a simple but effective root chord. By satisfying this in the music, it satisfies the listener. In “The Rite”’s case, because the absolute final chord is dissonant, it leaves a “what just happened?” sort of taste in your mouth. It doesn’t quite sit right.

High-register instruments like violins, but most notably the piccolos, quickly play a discordant, ascending run, resembling a winded death shriek. In a twist, the middle-register instruments such as the trumpets support the low-register instruments. Immediately after, the low-register instruments take the stage and finish it off with another concoction of notes that grate on the ears just right. Put these two pieces together and you have the perfect recipe to end any need for sleep you might have for the night.

Here’s the kicker. See the thumbnail for this article? It’s a part of that final chord. In ascending order, reading up the ledger lines on the bass clef, one can read that the bass instruments’ notes read out “D” in a lower octave, “E”, “A” and “D” in a higher octave. As if the chord wasn’t disturbing enough, it literally spells out the word “dead”! I have to give it to Stravinsky for that one. Whether or not that was intentional, we’ll never know, but it’s especially apt.

So, there it is: the scariest chord ever written. For me, my love (and fear) for the chord rings true for one specific performance: the one performed by Ballet Russes on the centennial of the ballet’s premiere. It also happens to be the one that’s the most viewed on YouTube and is arguably the most accurate reconstruction of its premiere.

I strongly recommend you watch and listen to this horrifying masterpiece. If you really want to get into it, watch it on the first day of spring, or next May 29, the date of the 1913 premiere. When you do, grab a snack, a cozy blanket to hide under and come prepared feeling a good dose of existential dread. You’re in for a wild ride, all the way up until its masterful final notes.

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