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Pulcinella was premiered on 15th May 1920 by the Ballets Russes at the Opéra in Paris, where it was billed simply as ‘music by Pergolesi, arranged and orchestrated by Igor Stravinsky’. Yet the work subsequently came to be identified more directly with Stravinsky as composer rather than arranger, in part a consequence of the concert suites he made of the score, including the version from 1922 (revised 1949). While Stravinsky later asserted that the ‘remarkable thing about Pulcinella is not how much but how little has been added or changed’, the alterations are significant enough to turn the music instantly into something unmistakably of the 20th century. Stravinsky began by working directly onto the transcriptions Diaghilev had given him, subtly annotating the melodies and bass lines of arias by Pergolesi, trio sonata movements by Gallo, and even a tarantella by Wassenaer. Sometimes the result was just a representation of the original in Stravinsky’s own accent. No-one could mistake the trombone and double-bass melody of the ‘Vivo’ for anything other than Stravinsky, even though every note of Pergolesi’s music is still present. There are cunning harmonic touches, anachronistic pedal points and off-beat accents that reveal the thumbprint of the arranger, but it remains a loving, albeit humorous, homage to Pergolesi. The same is true of the opening ‘Sinfonia’ (original music by Gallo). Elsewhere, however, Stravinsky declares his hand more decisively. In the ‘Serenata’, for instance, he adds an unchanging drone (an open fifth), which denies the music its forward movement and whose resulting dissonances bestow a languid, melancholic air. The ‘Finale’ is radically recomposed, repeating bars and moving them around, adding new harmonies and shifting downbeats, resulting in a rhythmically energised music that is categorically Stravinskian and, one might say, almost as Russian as it is Italian.
Pulcinella was Stravinsky’s discovery of the past, ‘the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course – the first of many love affairs in that direction – but it was a look in the mirror, too’. Despite its obvious dependence on the music of the past, Pulcinella represented an important turning point in Stravinsky’s artistic development. Just as, after the First World War, Picasso had felt the need to seek a rapprochement with the traditional forms of art he had once rejected so that he could move forward, equally Pulcinella revealed to Stravinsky the possibilities of engagement with all kinds of earlier music in order to renew his own musical language. Crucial, though, was not the material he took (it could come from anywhere – he described himself as suffering from a rare form of kleptomania!) but his attitude to it. Everything he touched he made his own.
from notes by Jonathan Cross © 2009