The Rite of Winter

first posted at READING ZONE

Parts of many of my books have been inspired by music: the chapter titles in White Crow for example, are titles of songs with related meanings, much of the Book of Dead Days was inspired by Schubert’s epic song cycle, Winterreise. 

And Midwinterblood is no exception: lines by Nick Drake and Led Zeppelin are tucked away in the text, but the most significant source for the book is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which is probably the piece that made me fall in love with classical music, as well as modern music. I first heard it at the age of around 14 and as the saying goes, it blew my tiny mind. More energy than the Sex Pistols, freakier than Hendrix, many people know the story of how a riot broke out at its scandalous first performance in Paris in 1913. This story was actually somewhat exaggerated, largely by Stravinsky himself, but it’s not hard to see what the fuss is all about. Even today, this piece, when performed well, is startling, brutal, raw and fundamentally unknowable.

The Rite concerns the pagan sacrifice of a girl in old Russia, and just the names of its fourteen short passages are enough to make my spine tingle: I stole some of them for the chapter titles in part seven of Midwinterblood: The Glorification of the Chosen One, The Kiss of the Earth… And one small part of Stravinsky’s work was the inspiration for some lines in the book just before the climatic sacrifice. The passage known as The Sage is shortest of the whole work, often just around twenty seconds long, and is a very very quiet section with a weird, otherworldly discord to end it. Either side of this near silence, the music thunders and drums, pounds and shudders, and to me, it depicts the way in life that a moment of great drama or violence is preceded by a moment of calm and stillness first.
I’d long wanted to pay homage to one of my favourite pieces of music by incorporating some of it in a book: I’m glad Midwinterblood gave me that chance.

PS Here’s four pieces of music you can “find” in the book:
Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
Evocation of the Ancestors, The Rite of Spring – Igor Stravinsky
The Unquiet Grave – many versions but my favourite is by Lau
Pink Moon – Nick Drake

And here’s a short extract from Part Seven of Midwinterblood

The Glorification of the Chosen One

The sled is nearly at its place.
King Eirikr rises from the gilded throne upon which he has been riding.
He is covered in a massive fur of fox, and yet, as he stands, he slips the knot at its neck, and lets it fall to the wooden floor of the sled.
He is naked, yet he feels neither the cold of night, nor the deep of winter. His blood is pounding through his body. He tips his chin to the heavens, defiantly.
He is naked but for the narrow gold band gripping his head, the gold bracer of triple design, another symbol of the flower cult, the magic of which even now hurtles round his veins with the rest of his hot blood.

As if in an orgy of orchestrated genius, there is always a moment of silence before the violence and noise of the act itself.
Before battle, as the whole army takes in a breath.
Before the diver leaps into the water, and the sea pounds his ear drums.
Before the storm, the stillness in which a single bird calls.
Before the pains of birth, the brief rest between the spasms.
Before the all the other instruments descend in a maelstrom, the faint and strangled chord from the bassoons.
Before the ice breaks, before the tree falls, before the sword lands.
It might only be a fraction of a moment, but that time can dilate, can swell and grow, can fill the world around it with its power, till it lasts for a lifetime.

© Marcus Sedgwick 2011

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