Stravinsky: Petrushka

Petrushka (1911 original version)

BORN: June 17, 1882. Oranienbaum, Russia
DIED: April 6, 1971. New York City

COMPOSED: Begun August 1910 and completed May 26, 1911, at Lausanne and Clarens, Switzerland, at Beaulieu in the South of France, and in Rome

WORLD PREMIERE: June 13, 1911, with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris. Scenario, scenery, and costumes were by Alexandre Benois, whose name appears on the title page as co-author of these “scènes burlesques” and to whom the music is dedicated. The choreography was by Michel Fokine. Pierre Monteux conducted, and the principal roles were taken by Vaslav Nijinsky as Petrushka, Tamara Karsavina as the Ballerina, Alexander Orlov as the Moor, and Enrico Cecchetti as the Magician. It was also Monteux who conducted the first concert performance on March 1, 1914, at the Casino de Paris with Alfredo Casella playing the piano solo

US PREMIERE: January 24, 1916, with the Ballets Russes at the Century Theatre, New York City. Ernest Ansermet conducted, with Léonide Miassine (later Massine), Lydia Lopokova, and Adolf Bolm

INSTRUMENTATION (1911 version):  4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (4th doubling English horn), 4 clarinets (4th doubling bass clarinet), 4 bassoons (4th doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, xylophone, tam-tam, two harps, piano, celesta, and strings

DURATION: About 34 mins

Here is young man’s music, though Stravinsky at twenty-eight was a fully developed artistic personality, dazzlingly and completely himself. The Firebird had had an immense success when Diaghilev produced it at the Paris Opera: On June 25, 1910, Stravinsky became a celebrity—for life. During the last days of finishing the Firebird orchestration, he had a dream in which he had witnessed “a solemn pagan rite: wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” This suggested music, and he began to compose. But he was perplexed. For while he could play the complex rhythms he imagined, he did not know how to write them down. He thought of the work as a symphony, but when he played the music to Diaghilev, that great impresario at once saw its possibilities for dance. Eager to consolidate the success of The Firebird, he urged Stravinsky to forge ahead with The Rite of Spring.

Stravinsky agreed, but found that what he really wanted after Firebird was the change and refreshment of writing a sort of concert piece for piano and orchestra: “In composing the music, I had in 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. The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet.” Stravinsky called his puppet Petrushka (the name of the character the composer dubbed “the immortal and unhappy hero of every fair in all countries”). The music Stravinsky described is a portion called Petrushka’s Cry and the Russian Dance, and these passages were what he played for the astonished Diaghilev, who had gone to visit the composer at Lausanne, expecting to find him hard at work on The Rite of Spring.

Once again, Diaghilev was quick to perceive the possibilities of what Stravinsky was up to. The two sketched the outlines of a ballet, agreed on a commission fee of 1,000 rubles, and decided that the scenario should be worked out by Alexandre Benois, the painter who had been one of Diaghilev’s original advisers at the founding of the Ballets Russes, who had conceived or designed some of the most famous of the Diaghilev productions, including Shéhérazade and Les Sylphides, and who had loved puppet theater since boyhood.

Stravinsky lost some weeks of working time when he came down with nicotine poisoning in February 1911, but for the rest, the collaboration went smoothly, and on May 26, in his room at the Albergo d’Italia, in Rome, the last bars were written. Just eighteen days later Petrushka went on stage, and it was yet another triumph. The Paris orchestra required a little persuading at first, and not long after, the Vienna Philharmonic tried to sabotage its performance. (They could not foresee what would be in store for them when Stravinsky returned to his project about spring in pagan Russia.)

The first and last scenes are public, the middle two private. The curtain rises to show Admiralty Square, Saint Petersburg, in the 1830s. It is a sunny winter’s day, and the Shrove-tide Fair is in progress. Crowds move about. Not everyone is quite sober. Two rival street dancers entertain, one with an organ grinder and the other with a music box. Drummers draw the crowd’s attention to an old Magician, who descends from his theater, plays the flute, and presents his three puppets—Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Moor. Touching them with his flute, he brings them to life. To the amazement of all, they too step down from the theater and perform a Russian dance in the midst of the crowd.

The second scene is set in Petrushka’s room. Its walls are black, decorated with stars and a crescent moon. The door leading to the Ballerina’s room has devils painted on it. A scowling portrait of the Magician dominates the space. When the curtain rises, the door of the cell is opened and a large foot kicks Petrushka inside. The preface to the score tells us that “while the Magician’s magic has imbued all three puppets with human feelings and emotions, it is Petrushka who feels and suffers most. Bitterly conscious of his ugliness and grotesque appearance, he feels himself to be an outsider, and he resents the way he is completely dependent on his cruel master. He tries to console himself by falling in love with the Ballerina. She visits him, and for a moment he believes he has succeeded in winning her. But she is frightened by his uncouth antics and she flees. In his despair, Petrushka curses the Magician and hurls himself at his portrait, but succeeds only in tearing a hole in the cardboard wall of his cell.”

Scene three takes us to the Moor’s room, papered with a pattern of green palm trees and fantastic fruits against a red ground. The Moor is brutal and stupid, but attractive to the ballerina. She comes to visit him and succeeds in distracting him from the coconut with which he is playing. Their scene together is interrupted by the jealously enraged Petrushka, whom, however, the Moor quickly throws out.

The last scene takes us back to the fairgrounds, but it is now evening. Wet-nurses dance, then a peasant with a trained bear, and after that a fairly boiled merchant with two Gypsy girls. Coachmen and stable boys appear, first doing a dance by themselves and then one with the wet-nurses. Finally, a group of masqueraders comes in, including a devil, goats, and pigs. Shouts are heard from the little theater. The sense of something wrong spreads to the dancers, who gradually stop their swirling. Petrushka runs from the theater, pursued by the Moor, whom the Ballerina is trying to restrain. The Moor catches up with Petrushka and strikes him with his saber. Petrushka falls, his skull broken. As he dies, a policeman goes to fetch the Magician. He arrives, picks up the corpse, shakes it. The crowd disperses. The Magician drags Petrushka toward the theater, but above the little structure, Petrushka’s ghost appears, threatening the Magician and thumbing his nose at him. Terrified, the Magician drops the puppet and hurries away.

Five of the melodies heard in the two fairground scenes are actual Russian folk songs. The waltzes played sentimentally on cornet, flutes, and harps in the third tableau are by Joseph Lanner, Austrian violinist and composer, friend and colleague of Johann Strauss, Sr. In the opening scene, the music for the first street dancer—the tune for flutes and clarinets, accompanied on the triangle—is one Stravinsky heard played regularly on a barrel organ outside his hotel room in Beaulieu. It is a music hall song called “Elle avait un’ jambe en bois.” Later it turned out that the song was in copyright, and arrangements were made for Emile Spencer, its composer, to be paid a royalty whenever Petrushka was played. Of the two sections that Stravinsky first played for Diaghilev in August 1910, the Russian Dance is the one that occurs in the first scene. Petrushka’s Cry became the music for the scene in Petrushka’s room. Those are the two places in which Petrushka is closest to retaining its originally imagined character as a concert piece for piano and orchestra. One of the undeniable peculiarities of the finished Petrushka score is the way Stravinsky managed gradually to forget all about the piano, an inattention for which, to some extent, he made amends in his 1946-47 rescoring.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(January 2018)