Petrouchka (revised 1947) – Igor Stravinsky
Born June 17, 1882 in Oranienbaum (now Lomonosov), Russia
Died April 6, 1971 in New York

This work premiered on June 13, 1911 in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet under the baton of Pierre Monteux with Vaclav Nijinsky dancing the title role.

Igor Stravinsky maintained that music is not a language for the communication of emotion but exists solely to establish order among sounds. It is surprising to many that Stravinsky regarded himself as a conservative and sought for clarity and simplicity above all else. One consequence to his devotion to tradition has been an unparalleled ferocity of attack against him by those who regarded him as an anarchist who was out to destroy the very foundations of music.

Stravinsky’s career spanned over seventy years. In that time he witnessed the ever-changing reaction, often resistance, to his newest pieces. Despite the opinions of those who found his music to be cacophonous (an accusation that seems ridiculous today), Stravinsky’s allure is found in his eruptions of dazzling colors and in his inventive rhythms, stark harmonies and barrenly beautiful melodies.

Much has been written about Stravinsky’s musical language in Petrouchka. His unique approach uses timbres and textures to signify characters and events while also retaining the more traditional use of melodic themes for the same purpose. Of course, the most famous of these is the Petrouchka chord that represents the puckish title character. For those keeping score, this dissonant simultaneous statement of C major and F-sharp major arpeggios is first played by two clarinets at the character’s initial appearance.

In Stravinsky’s original 1911 score, he included the following summary of the ballet’s colorful story:

In the midst of the Shrovetide festivities, an old Magician of oriental appearance exhibits before an astonished crowd the animated puppets Petrouchka, the Ballerina and the Moor, who perform a wild dance.

The Magician’s magic has endowed them with all the human feelings and passions. Petrouchka has been given more than the others. Therefore he suffers more than the Ballerina and the Moor. He resents bitterly the cruelty of the Magician, his bondage, his exclusion from ordinary life, his ugliness, and his ridiculous appearance. He seeks comfort in the love of the Ballerina and is on the point of believing in his success. But the lovely one shuns him, feeling only terror at his bizarre behavior.

The Moor’s life is completely different. He is brutish and wicked, but his splendid appearance fascinates the Ballerina, who tries to seduce him using all her charms and finally succeeds. Just at the moment of the love scene, Petrouchka appears, enraged with jealousy, but the Moor quickly throws him out the door.

The Shrovetide fair is at its height. A reveling merchant accompanied by gypsy singers throws handfuls of bank notes to the crowd. Coachmen dance with wet-nurses, a bear-tamer appears with his bear and finally a band of mummers sweeps everyone up in a diabolical melee. All at once cries are heard from the Magician’s little theatre. The rivalry of the Moor and Petrouchka finally takes a tragic turn. The animated puppets dash from the theater and the Moor knocks Petrouchka down with a blow of his saber. The wretched Petrouchka dies in the snow, surrounded by the holiday crowd. The Magician, whom a policeman has gone to fetch, hastens to reassure everyone and in his hands Petrouchka becomes a puppet again. He invites the crowd to verify that the head is wooden and the body is filled with bran. The crowd disperses. The Magician, now alone, catches sight, to his great terror, of Petrouchka’s ghost above the little theatre, menacing him and making mocking gestures at all whom the Magician has fooled.”

©2016 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin