The Kennedy Center

Pétrouchka (original version, 1911)

About the Work

Igor Stravinsky Composer: Igor Stravinsky
© Richard Freed

Stravinsky composed Petrushka, his second ballet for the legendary impresario Serge Diaghilev, in 1910-1911. The first performance was given on June 13 of the latter year at the Th??tre du Ch?telet in Paris, with choreography by Michel Fokine and d?cor by Alexandre Benois, who had collaborated with the composer in the scenario; Vaslav Nijinsky danced the title role, Tamara Karsavina was the Ballerina, Alexandre Orlov was the Moor, and Enrico Cecchetti the Charlatan; Pierre Monteux conducted. In 1947 Stravinsky revised the score ?with the dual purpose of copyrighting it and of adapting it to the resources of medium-sized orchestras?; both versions continue to circulate. The National Symphony Orchestra?s first performance of this music was a brief selection of excerpts conducted by Hans Kindler on November 10, 1937. Howard Mitchell conducted the orchestra?s first performances of the complete score, in the 1947 revision, on January 1, 2 and 3, 1957. The NSO did not present the complete work in the original 1911 version until February 7, 9 and 10, 1984, in concerts conducted by Rafael Fr?hbeck de Burgos; the most recent performances, under Gerard Schwarz on May 18, 19 and 20, 2000, again presented the 1911 version, and it is the same original version, with its richer spectrum of orchestral color and greater reserves of sheer power, that Leonard Slatkin conducts in the present concerts.

The 1911 score calls for 4 flutes and 2 piccolos, 4 oboes and English horn, 4 clarinets and bass clarinet, 4 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, xylophone, tam-tam, onstage and offstage snare drums, bass drum, triangle, piano, celesta (4 hands), 2 harps, and strings. Duration, 35 minutes.

Stravinsky had composed few works and was unknown outside Russia when Diaghilev took a chance on him and commissioned his first ballet score, The Firebird, whose premiere in Paris a week after the composer?s 28th birthday brought him, literally overnight, recognition as a major figure in the music of his time. Diaghilev commissioned another ballet at once, and Stravinsky began sketching what was to become The Rite of Spring. At the same time, however, he conceived a concert work for piano and orchestra, in the manner of Weber?s Konzertst?ck, which would have a ?program? built around the figure of Petrushka, the traditional Russian counterpart of the character known elsewhere by such names as Punch and Punchinello in the puppet shows associated with 19th-century carnivals??the immortal hero,? as Stravinsky described him, ?of every fair in all countries.?

In the summer of 1910, two months after the premiere of The Firebird, Diaghilev visited Stravinsky in Lausanne to discuss the new ballet they had agreed upon. When Stravinsky played the Russian Dance and ?Petrushka?s Cry? from his projected Konzertst?ck, which they had never discussed, the impresario was enchanted, not by the idea of a concert piece, but by the possibilities the music suggested for a ballet. It was decided then and there to defer The Rite of Spring and proceed at once with Petrushka, and the success of this second ballet was even more remarkable than that of The Firebird, which it followed by less than a year. (The premiere of Petrushka was significant, too, as the beginning of a major career for Pierre Monteux, who presided over the premiere of Ravel?s Daphnis and Chloe the following year, that of The Rite of Spring the year after that, and the hugely successful concert hall premiere of The Rite in 1914.)

The setting of Petrushka is the Shrovetide (pre-Lenten) fair in St. Petersburg?s Admiralty Square, about 1830. There are four scenes: the two outer ones take place outdoors, amid the festive crowds, while the inner ones present a backstage drama in which the puppets are transformed into real people with real feelings. In the first scene the Charlatan?the manager/director of the amusements at the fair?introduces the inert figures of Petrushka, the Ballerina and the Moor, which he brings to life by playing his flute. The vivified puppets leap from their little stage and dance among the astounded carnival-goers; their Russian Dance is based on a Russian folk song, one of five which Stravinsky quoted in his score (in addition to French and Viennese tunes).

The solo piano of the original Konzertst?ck concept was not entirely abandoned. Stravinsky included a prominent part for the piano in the brief second scene, set in Petrushka?s room. ?Petrushka?s Cry,? jarring in its dissonance, is heard as he is kicked into his dismal cell by the Charlatan. The Ballerina enters, but stays only long enough to reject Petrushka?s clumsy overtures.

The scene now changes to the Moor?s room. We find its occupant playing with a coconut until the Ballerina enters, playing a saucy tune on a cornet. She and the Moor begin to dance. (Here Stravinsky made use of two of Josef Lanner?s dance tunes: the first is from his Styrian Dances, Op. 165, and the second from the waltz Die Sch?nbrunner, Op. 200.) Petrushka bursts in; the Moor shows his extreme displeasure by working him over and chasing him out of the room.

The final scene takes us back to the ?real world? of the fair, where evening has come and the activity is in full swing. The orchestra becomes a giant accordion to introduce the chain of colorful dances, the first and most prominent being the Wet-Nurses? Dance (to the tune of the folk song ?Down the Petersky Road?). Then comes a peasant with his dancing bear, followed in turn by a rake merchant and Gypsies, coachmen and grooms, and masqueraders. As the merrymaking reaches its peak, Petrushka suddenly runs across the scene, followed by the Moor in hot pursuit and brandishing a sword. The crowd is horrified when the Moor catches up with Petrushka and dispatches him. The Charlatan, summoned by a policeman, seeks to restore calm by shaking sawdust from the ?corpse? to show that it was only a puppet?but as he leaves, carrying the limp figure with him, Petrushka?s ghost appears on the roof of the little theater, his cry now in the form of an angry protest. The Charlatan scampers off, with a single frightened glance over his shoulder, and the scene is hushed, leaving the spectators to wonder who was ?real? and who was not.

Stravinsky and Benois worked together closely in developing the scenario for Petrushka, with Benois insistent on some points and the composer just as firm in rejecting some of them. ?The resurrection of Petrushka?s ghost,? Stravinsky wrote,
was my idea, not Benois?s. I had conceived the music in two keys in the second tableau as Petrushka?s insult to the public, and I wanted the dialogue for trumpets in two keys at the end to show that his ghost is still insulting the public. I was, and am, more proud of these last pages than of anything else in the score.