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Pétrouchka

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Michael Christie, conductor/Jennifer Koh, violin, plays Bernstein Nov. 13 - 15, 2008
© Paul Horsley

When Sergei Diaghilev visited Stravinsky in Switzerland in the summer of 1910, he expected the composer of have made progress on the score that was to be their next big collaboration, The Rite of Spring. To his initial dismay, he found that another piece altogether was underway, one that would make The Firebird of 1910 look conventional in comparison. It was the score for Petrouchka, a piece that a century later continues to baffle and amaze.

Stravinsky had been putting off the Rite, which he knew was going to be a huge project (and he was right). So he started doodling at the keyboard, with bitonal chords and wild pianistic roulades. (Stravinsky composed at the piano, and often playing by his scores on the keyboard one can discover the tactile origins of some of his most striking sonorities, like the F-sharp/C-major "Petrouchka chord.") Initially he thought of Petrouchka as an orchestral work with concertante piano, "a sort of Konzertstück," as he later wrote. "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 ... and it ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet." The seeds were planted for Petrouchka. Fortunately, when he played passages of it for Diaghilev, the impresario enthusiastically suggested that the composer turn the work into a ballet.

With the aid of Alexandre Benois, Diaghilev and Stravinsky worked out a detailed scenario. The action centered on Petrouchka, the Harlequin-like folkloric figure of Russian folklore - a sort of a mischievous loafer. In Stravinsky's and Benois's rendering, Petrouchka is a puppet who comes to life and annoys everyone, including the Columbine-like ballerina, with whom he falls desperately in love. Completing the music in early 1911, Stravinsky gave the work to Michel Fokine, who though not a fan of the music, created the choreography. Vaslav Nijinsky danced the title role in the work's premiere in Paris on June 11 of that year; Pierre Monteux conducted the performance, which took place at the Théâtre du Châtelet. Its revolutionary musical language made a deep impression, and the success came as somewhat of a surprise even to its creators.

"We were all afraid that its position on the program would be ruinous," Stravinsky later said. "Everyone said that it could not succeed at the beginning of a program." Petrouchka was also crucial in Stravinsky's development. "The success was good for me," he said, "in that it gave me the absolute conviction of my ear just as I was about to begin The Rite of Spring."

In 1947 Stravinsky rewrote his score for a smaller orchestra, "with the dual purpose of copyrighting it and of adapting it to the resources of medium-sized orchestras," as he said later. "Ever since the first performance of the score, I had wanted to balance the orchestral sound more clearly in a few places, and to effect other improvements in the instrumentation. The orchestration of the 1947 version is, I think, much more skillful."

Petrouchka is divided into four "tableaux," or scenes. The First Tableau depicts the Shrovetide Fair in St. Petersburg in the early 19th century, and features dances by various groups of villagers and circus performers. A show-master produces a small theater containing three puppets, and as he plays the flute, the three dolls come to life and begin to dance. The Second Tableau takes place in Petrouchka's room or cell, where the boy rails against his awkwardness and his total dependence upon the puppet-master's will. Here the "Petrouchka chord" makes its appearance, "as Petrouchka's insult to the public," in the composer's words.

In the Third Tableau, the ballerina visits the third puppet, the "Blackamoor," whom she favors over Petrouchka. Enter Petrouchka, throwing himself about in a jealous fit. The Fourth Tableau returns to the Shrovetide Fair, with a varied array of dances; in the midst of the commotion, the puppets come to life again. The Moor chases Petrouchka, strikes him down, and makes off with the Ballerina as Petrouchka dies. The show-master assures the public that Petrouchka is only a doll, and the crowd disperses. But in a final surprise, Petrouchka's ghost is seen on the rooftop, mocking the show-master and the audience as well. Or is it the real Petrouchka, truly alive after all?