How not to Hear Le Sacre du Printemps? Schoenberg’s Theories, Leibowitz’s Recording


The 50th anniversary of Le Sacre du Printemps was marked with a recording by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rene Leibowitz. The interpretation is intriguing because Leibowitz was a deeply devoted Schoenbergian. Convinced of Schoenberg’s outlook on musical performance, as re-formulated and expressed by the composer’s brother-in-law and student Rudolf Kolisch, Leibowitz thus contrived to apply Austro-German musical principles to Stravinsky’s Russian music.

My essay begins with Schoenberg’s understanding of Stravinsky’s early works — the aesthetic and compositional principles by which he praised and criticized them. Leibowitz espoused many of Schoenberg’s beliefs about Stravinsky’s music, and they determined his approach to Le Sacre. Following the performance practices of Kolisch, Leibowitz would interpret Le Sacre with a Schoenbergian analysis in mind. I offer such an analysis of the Introduction to Part I as a case study showing the insights it offers both about the piece and Leibowitz’s reading. Crucially, this analysis considers Le Sacre’s lack of developing variation, which Schoenberg would have deplored, as well as the structuring role of Stravinsky’s orchestration, which he ever held in high regard.