Pulcinella Suite

by Max Derrickson

Igor Stravinsky
(b in Lomonosov, Russia, June 17, 1882; d in New York, April 6, 1971)

Suite from the ballet Pulcinella
1. Sinfonia
2. Serenata
3. a: Scherzino – b: Allegretto – c: Andantino
4. Tarantella
5. Gavotta (con due variazioni)
6. Vivo (Duetto)
7. a: Minuetto – b: Finale

Reflecting back one hundred years after the premiere of the Rite of Spring (1913) – that ballet by Stravinsky and the Ballet Russe that shocked the world and brought the audience at its Paris premiere to riot – one often wonders what happened to Stravinsky after that world-changing piece.  We seldom hear his other works in the concert hall (besides the two ballets that preceded it, The Firebird and Petrouchka), and when we do, we might presume they were written before the mighty Rite was penned, so ultimate it seems.

In fact, Stravinsky went on to blaze even more trails in the music world throughout the rest of his long career, and the next full ballet he wrote after the Rite was one of these transformative pieces.  Stravinsky composed Pulcinella in 1920 and shocked the world again –this time not with pagan ritual, jarring rhythms or a colossal orchestra, but with the charm, humor and minimal instrumental forces that hearken back to the 18th Century.  By looking backwards Stravinsky moved forward, and set into motion what became the Neoclassical musical movement.

But credit must be given as well to the Ballet Russe’s director, Sergei Diaghilev, for introducing Stravinsky to this new path and encouraging this next masterpiece.  Immediately after the premiere of the Rite of Spring came World War I, and the Ballet Russe essentially shut down.  By 1919, Stravinsky and Diaghilev’s relationship had also taken a sour turn.  In the War’s aftermath in Paris, money was tight, and Diaghilev had to regroup modestly.  He began staging smaller scale works and having composers arrange works by earlier famous composers into ballet suites.  It kept costs down and the ballets were warmly welcomed by a weary, war torn French public.  Following the 1919 success of Diaghilev and Resphigi’s tribute to Rossini called La boutique fantasque, Diaghilev hoped to continue the success and so went to the Naples Library in Italy to copy a stack of instrumental pieces by the Italian Baroque composer, Giovanni Pergolesi (1710 -1736).  (It turns out, actually, that several of the pieces were by contemporaries of Pergolesi, but deliberately misattributed by 18th and 19th Century publishers – Pergolesi, had died at age 26 and had written little instrumental music, but forging his name sold more music.)  Diaghilev hoped to soothe the differences between himself and his old collaborator, […]

Slowly, however, as Stravinsky sifted through the works, his imagination was fired, and a magical hybrid of styles was born – Pulcinella.  The older Baroque composer’s music is readily apparent, but, so is Stravinsky’s ingenuity woven through it as an integral part.  Stravinsky’s not-so Baroque touches are the added measures to phrases that extend them just beyond their “period” shape, quick tempo changes and syncopations, more modern harmonies, and, especially, the modern orchestral colors (such as trumpet and trombone, and various modern bowing techniques for the strings).  Stravinsky’s genius turns this lovely older music into something incredibly fresh and invigorating, […]

To the early 20th Century audiences, Pulcinella was seen as a revolution against the excesses of colossal works, with their ever larger orchestras, like Stravinsky’s own Rite of Spring, or Mahler’s later symphonies.  This little masterpiece signaled a return to a more Classic aesthetic – clarity of expression, smaller ensembles, cleanliness of melody and harmony, […]  The set and costumes were designed by the already legendary Pablo Picasso, the choreography by the famous Léonide Massine.  Tempers flared and critics railed, […]

The story which all of this talent co-created is based on the old Neapolitan street theater tradition, Commedia dell’arte, in particular, […]

Stravinsky said that what was surprising about Pulcinella and his reworking of Pergolesi “was not how much but how little was changed.”  […]