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Before tackling the Sacre du Printemps, which would be a long and difficult task, I wanted to refresh myself by composing an orchestral piece in which the piano would play the most important part—a sort of Konzertstück. In composing the music, I had in my mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggi. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet-blasts. The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet. Having finished this bizarre piece, I struggled while walking beside Lake Geneva, to find a title which would express in a word the character of my music and consequently the personality of this creature.
One day I leapt for joy. I had indeed found my title—Petroushka, the immortal and unhappy hero of every fair in all countries. (Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography)
On a visit to Stravinsky in Lausanne, Diaghilev heartily encouraged the development of Le Sacre. But upon hearing these recent sketches played at the piano, Diaghilev, Stravinsky writes, ‘was so much pleased with it that he would not leave it alone and began persuading me to develop the theme of the puppet’s suffering and make it into a whole ballet.’
Pétrouchka premiered on 13 June 1911, at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet with Pierre Monteux conducting, choreographed by Fokine, with designs by Alexandre Benois, and featuring Vaclav Nizhinsky in the title role. The premiere matched (indeed, among the musical community, exceeded) the success of The Firebird. Stravinsky’s exhilarating score impressed audiences with its freshness and breadth of musical ideas, ranging from Russian folk tunes to the sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic techniques that would place it, alongside Le Sacre, among the 20th century’s most influential works. Diaghilev toured the production internationally in 1913 and subsequent seasons; The Times reported on Pétrouchka’s London premiere: ‘The whole thing is refreshingly new and refreshingly Russian, more Russian, in fact, than any ballet we have seen … The employment of Russian folk music in the scene in the fair is also most refreshing, and the way in which persistent rhythms bring out the character and movement of the crowd is something quite new.’
The ballet comprises four tableaux. The first opens at the Shrove-tide fair: cacophonous tremolo figures (set, in the orchestral score, in the clarinets and horns) raise the curtain on the bustling scene; initial melodic fragments evoke the street vendors’ cries. Vivid episodes follow, conjuring street dancers and organ-grinders, and marked by breathtaking pandiatonicism and unexpected metric shifts.
The magician plays an enigmatic flute cadenza. In a letter to Stravinsky, Debussy praised the ‘sonorous magic’ of this cadenza and the chimerical music that follows, in which the three puppets—Pétrouchka, the Ballerina, and the Moor—come to life ‘by a spell of which … you seem to be the sole inventor.’ The first tableau concludes with the familiar and irresistible Russian dance.
The second tableau, set in Pétrouchka’s cell, introduces the score’s signature moment: two simultaneously ascending major triad arpeggios, separated by a tritone. This recurring harmonic device—emblematic of the ballet’s anti-hero, and thereafter famously known as the Pétrouchka chord—bears strange expressive power. Voiced, in the orchestral score, by two clarinets, it seems at once to capture the humor, pathos, mischief, poignancy, defiance, loneliness, and self-loathing that define the title character. Stravinsky moreover described this bitonal motto as Pétrouchka’s ‘insult to the public.’
Now endowed with human feelings, Pétrouchka falls in love with the Ballerina, but descends into a frenzy of despair when his vulgar antics frighten her away. The third tableau follows the Ballerina to the Moor’s cell, where the brutish Moor dances clumsily to an exotic folk-like tune. The Ballerina joins the Moor in a waltz, scored sardonically for flute, cornet, and bassoon, and brimming with wry sentimentality. A jealous Pétrouchka appears; his losing quarrel with the Moor (as the Ballerina faints) closes the scene, and the music returns to the Shrove-tide fair and the radiant sonority of the ballet’s opening. The final tableau mirrors the first in its episodic narrative and continued use of folk material: the soaring melody in the Dance of the nursemaids, for instance, comes from the Russian folk song ‘Ia vechor moloda.’
Moments later, the folk tune ‘Akh vy sieni, moi sieni’ appears, piqued by the tritone harmony that colors the Pétrouchka chord. The Pétrouchka chord resurfaces and disintegrates as the Moor strikes down and kills Pétrouchka near the ballet’s end. In the work’s closing measures, as the magician has gathered the puppet corpse, the motif reappears, as defiantly as ever—set fortississimo in the trumpets—as Pétrouchka’s ghost thumbs his nose at the magician and, indeed, at us.
For all of the score’s orchestral splendor, Stravinsky’s four-hand piano transcription of Pétrouchka (initially prepared for rehearsal purposes) remains remarkably effective. Much as losing one sense may sharpen another, hearing the work in this version, without the benefit of its kaleidoscopic orchestration, brings into focus Stravinsky’s melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic inventiveness, highlighting just how vast is his arsenal of compositional techniques. While it has become one of the 20th century’s most iconic and beloved works, Pétrouchka likewise retains an insuppressible freshness, honored anew with each hearing. To encounter it in this guise—strictly speaking, a blueprint, but in fact an enchanting creation in its own right—only attunes us more deeply to Stravinsky’s ingenuity.
from notes by Patrick Castillo © 2013
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