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 arpeggios…
IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882–1971)
PETRUSHKA (1947 VERSION)
The puppet springs to life
A pagan girl, a sacrifice to the god of Spring, dances herself to death. This is the image Igor Stravinsky pitched to Sergei Diaghilev as his follow-up to their stunningly successful first collaboration, The Firebird. Intrigued, Diaghilev went to visit Stravinsky three months after his initial pitch to see how Stravinsky was getting on with their new ballet. Instead, it appeared Stravinsky had gotten diverted onto a completely different idea, intended just for orchestra. Of this, Stravinsky 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 arpeggios. The orchestra in return retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts.’ Diaghilev was never backward about coming forward; he immediately told Stravinsky this idea was fit for much more than just an orchestral work. Stravinsky writes: ‘[Diaghilev] was so much pleased with it that he would not leave it alone and began persuading me to develop the theme of the puppet’s sufferings and make it into a whole ballet.’
And so Petrushka was born. Until largely supplanted by the innovations of The Rite of Spring, Petrushka was seen as the most exciting, most cutting-edge score on the planet.
It was a hit. But some reviews showed that its innovations may have left some listeners behind. A London Times review from February 1912 said, ‘It is all horribly macabre and extraordinarily effective […] The ballet was very favourably received, though the house seemed a little puzzled by the newness of it all.’
What marks the work out as so new is in part due to its use of modernist techniques. Petrushka is packed full of tunes, but unlike traditional Classical or Romantic orchestral music, these tunes are not developed or elaborated on, but are placed side-by-side in a bright collage of musical colour. Dave Kopplin, writing for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, notes that Petrushka therefore marks Stravinsky[’s…] turn away from ‘developmental’ form, often instead creating contrasts with bold blocks of sound […] This kind of composition has been likened to the paintings of Picasso and Georges Braque […] where a painted object might be made up of several blocks of loosely related colour.’
Another of Stravinsky’s ‘puzzling’ techniques was his use of bitonality. In most pre-twentieth century music, a musical work would be centred in one key, or tonality, and only move to another key if it was related to the original key (and more often than not, the piece would then move back home to the original key). You would also, normally, hear a transitional section stitching together the section in the home key with the section in the new (but related) key. In Petrushka, however, Stravinsky presents two tonalities at the same time, with no transition to ease the listener’s passage. He does this specifically to characterise Petrushka himself, the suffering puppet of
Petrushka was seen as the most exciting, most cutting-edge score on the planet…
The duality of Petrushka
The ballet Petrushka is constructed in four tableaux. In the First Tableau, we open on the Shrovetide Fair, called Maslenitsa in Russia, and roughly analogous to Carnival (the original set design by Alexandre Benois features market stalls, a ferris wheel, a carousel and a puppet theatre). The scene is set in the first instance of Stravinsky’s musical collages: the vibrant energy and wonder of the fair are shown in the drunken renditions of folk songs, cheek-by-jowl with brass interjections heralding the entrance of the Master of Ceremonies, clarinets and flutes mimicking a squeaky organ played by an organ grinder, and girls dancing to a dirty music-hall song Elle avait une jambe de bois. Finally, drum rolls herald the entrance of the Magician, who then plays a sinuous flute melody to awaken three puppets: the Ballerina, the Moor, and Petrushka. The charismatic Moor clearly catches the eye of the Ballerina, just as Petrushka himself shows his love for the Ballerina.
In the Second Tableau, we see Petrushka alone and hear rapid arpeggios in the clarinets, some in C major, some in the unrelated key of F sharp. This is the first instance of bitonality in the ballet, and is thematically important from now on, characterising Petrushka’s binary nature. He is both human, in his deep love for the Ballerina, and shown by the music’s lyricism, and a puppet; he is both alive and not living.
When the Ballerina enters, he becomes exuberant, even manic, in his effort to impress her – but it doesn’t work and she runs away.
In the Third Tableau, we see Petrushka’s nightmare become true. The Ballerina and the Moor seduce each other, first heralded by the Ballerina’s suggestive trumpet tune, then sealed with a waltz. Petrushka bursts in, interrupting their tête-a-tête. The Moor beats him and Petrushka is chased.
In the Fourth Tableau, we return to the fair and its celebratory mayhem. The oboe sings of a drunk wife stumbling home; heavy chords stamp out the dance of the coachmen and stable boys, and the coachmen’s song is played in canon by the whole orchestra. A solo trumpet brings Petrushka into the scene, chased by the angry Moor. Petrushka takes a blow to the head by the Moor, thereby killing him. The shocked crowd falls silent. But the Magician reappears and reveals that Petrushka is just a puppet full of sawdust, and not a real human.
Nothing to feel guilty about. As the crowds disperse and the magician drags Petrushka away, he sees Petrushka’s ghost on the roof, thumbing his nose. The final chords are – what else – in C and F sharp. Petrushka gets the last word.
© Febry Ibrus
Courtesy of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Llewellyn Four: Infinite Possibilities is presented by Shell Australia, a CSO Gold Partner