Stravinsky: Petrushka

Stravinsky_picassoPetrushka is the second of the three landmark ballet scores that Stravinsky composed for impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.  The first, from 1910, was The Firebird; the third, from 1913, was The Rite of Spring, which I featured on this blog in March 2011 in a post you can read herePetrushka was completed early in 1911 and was given its premiere in June of that year in Paris, with Nijinsky dancing the title role.

I was introduced to Petrushka many years ago – sometime during my years at the University of Colorado – through a 1967 London Records LP featuring the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of Zubin Mehta.  I was immediately captivated by this extraordinary work, its exuberance and melodic richness, and, if I may paraphrase Marc-Andre Hamelin from last month’s post, “I do not expect this work to lose the hold it has on me at any time in the future.”

I still have that old album, the liner notes to which were written by the late British musicologist, Robin Golding.  I have reproduced below his synopsis of the plot of Petrushka, and have added a few timer indications from the video that follows to serve as guideposts to the viewer.

This video features the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons, in a performance that perfectly captures the energy and vitality of Stravinsky’s score.  I particularly like one YouTube viewer’s comment on this video: “Don’t think I’ve ever seen a conductor so happy to conduct a piece of Stravinsky.”


Petrushka began to take shape in 1910, shortly after the composer had completed the score of The Firebird, and it is interesting to note that originally the work was intended not as ballet music, but as a short concert-piece for pianoforte and orchestra, called by the Russian name for that mythical tragicomic figure of which another derivation is Pierrot.  This concert-piece is retained in the score of the ballet Petrushka as the music for the scene in the Second Tableau.

Gradually the larger concept of a story based on this sad and lonely figure was evolved, and Stravinsky added another movement to the pianoforte-orchestral work – a Russian dance which now ends the First Tableau of Petrushka.  Finally, the whole emerged as a ballet, in which form it was given for the first time in Paris on June 13, 1911, with Nijinsky in the name part.  To this day it remains one of the most satisfying of all ballets, with its brilliant music and simple yet timeless story.

The work is scored for a large orchestra, including a bold array of percussion instruments, whilst, of course, the pianoforte has a prominent part in the orchestration.  In 1947 Stravinsky revised the work, linking the four tableaux by means of drum interludes, and making alterations to the scoring.  The action takes place in the Admiralty Square, St. Petersburg during the annual fair of the Shrovetide Festival, about the year 1830.


All is bustle and excitement; crowds of colorful characters pass to and fro, to the accompaniment of similar animation in the orchestra.  Shrill, lively flute figures are heard and lead to a broader, more emphatic tune, based on the Russian Easter song Christ is Risen.  An organ grinder appears [1:42], and clarinets quietly introduce a fragment of a more wistful melody which is rudely interrupted by the general flurry, but the musician persists with his theme.  His lady companion strikes a triangle and begins to pirouette to a jolly little tune [2:21] (which Stravinsky had heard played on a barrel-organ when he was working on the score of Petrushka).  This theme is given to flutes and clarinets, and repeated by a solo trumpet.  Now another street musician appears, also accompanied by a dancer; he plays on a musical box, and then both groups perform together, whilst their respective themes are heard simultaneously in the orchestra.  As they conclude, the crowd begins its movement once more, the lively rhythms recommence, and former themes are heard again, including the Easter song.  After a big climax, two drummers give a loud roll on their drums as an old Showman appears outside his booth, which is shaped to represent a small theatre.  Mysterious phrases on the woodwind, harp, and celesta lead to a flute solo [5:45], as the Showman produces his instrument and begins to play.  He indicates to the crowd that his flute has magic powers, and, as he plays, the curtain rises in front of his booth, disclosing three puppets: Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Moor.  The Showman touches them in turn with the flute, and – to two staccato notes – each puppet comes to life, to the amazement of the onlookers.  The three figures then animatedly join in the brilliant Russian Dance which the orchestra plays [7:00], and this exciting music concludes the First Tableau.


In the Second Tableau of the ballet we are shown only Petrushka’s little cell.  The door opens, and Petrushka is kicked into the room, where he lies in a corner.  Two clarinets give out a fanfare which becomes a motto theme to represent Petrushka, who curses in anger at the Showman who has such evil power over him.  The orchestra imitates his rage and helplessness.  He picks himself up, and begins to dance to a light accompaniment of flute and piano [11:02].  Suddenly the Ballerina enters the room [12:33], and Petrushka, who, of course, loves her, is overcome with joy.  He jumps and dances in his simple delight, but the Ballerina will have none of him and goes away.  Again Petrushka rages impotently (depicted by clarinet and piano cadenzas), after which trumpets stridently proclaim his fanfare as the curtain falls.


This opens with barbaric strains from the orchestra, and the Moor is seen playing with a coconut.  The colouring of the music becomes as dark and somber as the Moor himself, and a slow, weird tune is given out quietly by clarinet and bass clarinet [15:00], accompanied by cymbals, bass drum, and pizzicato strings.  To this strange melody the Moor dances rather clumsily.  There is a more vigorous section as he attempts to break open the coconut with his scimitar, but fails.  Now the Ballerina appears again; she is heralded by a roll on the side-drum and dances in playing upon a trumpet [17:09].  The Moor is captivated by her elegance, and when she begins a waltz (introduced by bassoon arpeggios) he attempts to join in with the theme of his own slow dance [18:37], which, however, does not fit.  Outbursts in the orchestra represent the Moor’s gruff cries of approval, and the Ballerina repeats the waltz, now orchestrated differently.  Without warning, Petrushka rushes in, mad with rage and jealousy [19:58].  He attacks the Moor, who quickly draws his scimitar and puts the unlucky puppet to flight.


Now we are back in the outside world again; the crowds are as great and boisterous as before.  For a moment the bustle ceases as spiky figures are heard from the oboes and trumpets but the animation quickly resumes, and soon a rocking figure on oboes, clarinets, and horns leads into the dance of a group of nursemaids who have joined the scene.  As they dance, fragments of a new theme are heard, first on the oboe and then from the horns [22:14].  This is a Russian folksong, Down the Petersky, and it is gradually worked up until the full orchestra plays it with rich harmonization.  A more staccato section leads to fragments of another folksong, Oh, My Room, My Little Room, which is eventually given complete by a solo trumpet [23:58], after which both folktunes are heard together.

A peasant comes on the scene with a performing bear, and the bass of the orchestra growls out a rough figure which suggests the cumbersome animal [24:38].  As the peasant dances to the tune on the clarinet, the bear tries to imitate him (on the tuba), whilst the crowd stands and gapes at this new attraction.  When the performance has finished, the hurly-burly is resumed, in the midst of which a drunken merchant appears and flings banknotes to the crowd, whilst two gipsy girls who are with him dance to a sprightly figure given out by oboe and cor anglais.  A slackening of the tempo leads to a new dance, that of the coachmen, based on yet another folksong, I Was Going up a Hill.  It is given out fragmentarily by trumpets, strings, and horns, and later interrupted by a return of Down the Petersky [27:33].  After some brilliant working up, the music quietens for a few moments as a group of masqueraders enters to an accompaniment of piano, harp, woodwind, and strings [29:13].  One of them represents a devil (bold, descending jumps on the brass); others are a goat and a pig who prance about, to the delight of the crowd.

As the music progresses, there are sounds of a commotion from the Showman’s booth.  Petrushka’s fanfares are heard on muted trumpets [30:45], and Petrushka himself rushes out of the booth followed by the Moor, who chases him with brandished scimitar.  The Moor strikes at Petrushka, who falls to the ground and, after a few pathetic convulsions, dies.  The Showman picks up the body of Petrushka, from which he shakes out some grains of sawdust.  He reassures the people that the figures in the drama are merely puppets which had been given life by his magic powers, and the crowd soon melts away, leaving the Showman alone in the gathering twilight.  Suddenly Petrushka’s fanfare is heard from the trumpets [33:45], harsh and menacing, and the figure of the puppet’s ghost appears above the top of the booth.  It shakes its fist angrily and pulls a derisive “long nose” at the Showman, who drops the sawdust dummy he is carrying and hurries fearfully from the scene.

Notes by Robin Golding

Published in: on October 30, 2014 at 9:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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