Stravinsky – Petrouchka – Burlesque in Four Scenes (1947 Version)

by Max Derrickson

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

Petrouchka – Burlesque in Four Scenes (1947 Version)
Scene I: The Shrovetide Fair
Scene II: Petrouchka’s Room
Scene III: The Moor’s Room
Scene IV: The Shrovetide Fair (Toward Evening)

The first years of the 20th century witnessed some incredible innovations in music and art.  Berlin was often raked by musical “scandals” – music so new and inventive that audiences became rowdy, sometimes violent.  Theater, too, was branching further into uncharted territory in Berlin and Paris.  But most everyone agreed that the convergence of genius in music, dance and stage design that Paris witnessed in those years from Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe was the most extraordinary.  Composer Igor Stravinsky, choreographer/dancer Michel Fokine, dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, and set designer Alexandre Benois created some of the most astonishingly innovative ballets in history.  Each artist, in their own creative brilliance, changed everything that came after in their fields.  Of certain note, of course, were the Firebird (1910), Petrouchka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913), in which
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After the Firebird’s success in 1910, Diaghilev and Stravinsky were contemplating a new ballet about a pagan Russian ritual.  Knowing how strenuous the process would be, Stravinsky began working on a different kind of piece in the meantime, a piano concerto to keep himself compositionally “fresh.”  The idea behind the piece poised the piano as a diabolical puppet, whose shrieks and antics drove the orchestra to madness.  When Diaghilev heard this “puppet music” he was bewitched, and thus was born the idea for their Petrouchka ballet.  It was premiered in Paris on June 13, 1911, and was another titanic success.

Petrouchka posed non-traditional challenges from the start.  The three main characters were, after all, wooden puppets, necessitating from Fokine a completely new approach to dance.  Also, the story takes place at a fair, where the stage is often crowded with drunken people and chaos.  Thus, Stravinsky’s musical challenge was to effectually portray colliding scenes and activities, like a roving musical spotlight, but in a way that still carried the narrative.  And Fokine’s parallel challenge was to choreograph those wild scenes in a way that seemed realistically chaotic, yet kept the attention of the audience.  And, of course, Fokine had to choreograph Stravinsky’s music, which was strikingly varied, and at the time, contained the most rapidly changing meters of any ballet music yet written.  Petrouchka is often considered Fokine’s greatest masterpiece, and although we remember Stravinsky’s name and The Rite of Spring in the same breath, his score to Petrouchka could arguably be considered his greatest.  Of the dancers, Nijinsky’s extraordinary portrayal of Petrouchka forever solidified his fabled career.

Stravinsky’s great musical achievements in Petrouchka were the result of an almost complete re-imagining of orchestral sound.  Rather than focusing on the blending of instrumental timbres, Stravinsky rethought the sounds that individual instruments could make.  You will often hear single instruments carrying the themes to propel the narrative, or two or three solo instruments, with sparse orchestral filler behind.  Not that there aren’t plenty of moments of full orchestral sound in Petrouchka, but in contrast to the more sparse moments, they seem even more colossal and stunningly dramatic.  Following that musical premise, Stravinsky also rethought the aural sensation of an instrument’s attack and decay; for example, especially in the fourth scene, listen for moments from the flutes, and later in the horns, where the sounds begin softly and rapidly crescendo to a hard stop –
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These scoring techniques may seem less innovative today, but in 1911 they were exceptionally original.  In part, the new approaches Stravinsky used were inspired by the story itself – Petrouchka is a story of a surreal world, where puppets come to life amidst a drunken revelry and the music uncannily fits its grotesqueries and psychology.  After its great success, Stravinsky made several revisions over the years, but the 1947 suite version played today is most often performed in concert.

I. The Shrovetide Fair: Petrouchka takes place during the Shrovetide Fair in Admiralty Square, St. Petersburg, 1880, on the last day of “Butter Week,” which is the week of revelry just before Lent.  The first scene opens with the crowds, vendors and carnival performers milling about the Fair grounds.  The Master of Ceremonies bellows invitations (timpani, strings).  An organ grinder plays (clarinets),
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The drums play again to herald the change of scene.

II. Petrouchka’s Room:  Petrouchka is locked into his room – a dark cell.  It becomes clear to the puppet that he is alive, and has the full range of human emotions (the “Petrouchka chord,” which signifies this puppet/human duality, is first heard in the clarinets).
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III. The Moor’s Room: The Moor puppet is handsome and strong and mentally dull, not possessing Petrouchka’s human-ness.  Petrouchka’s head now peers into the Moor’s room and he watches as the Moor mindlessly amuses himself with a coconut and other things.  The lovely Ballerina arrives
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The drums announce the next scene.

IV. The Shrovetide Fair (Toward Evening):  After a day of reveling and flowing vodka, all manner of merriment and debauchery are taking place at the Fair.  Various groups dance and gambol, colliding and interrupting one another, until a peasant and a dancing bear appear which scatter the crowd (high clarinet and low string bass).  As this finishes the crowds resume their dances and lascivious cavorting as night and snow begin to fall.  A shriek is heard
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and the scene ends bleakly, almost remorselessly, as Admiralty Square silently fills with snow.