Igor Stravinsky, Petrushka (chamber transcription)

February 8, 2018

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Petrushka (1910–11, revised 1947)

Arranged by Yuval Shapiro for flute, clarinet, violin/viola, cello, harp and piano

Igor Stravinsky with Vaslav Nijinsky in costume for Petrushka, 1911 One of the towering composers of the 20th Century, Igor Stravinsky secured his initial reputation with three extraordinary ballet scores for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). Marshalling huge orchestral forces, a dazzling technique initially drawn from the Russian Nationalists such as Rimsky-Korsakov, and an innovative approach above all to complex, bristling rhythms, Stravinsky astonished Parisian audiences initially to riot and then quickly to unbridled adoration. While The Firebird seems an extension of his Russian forebears and the Rite of Spring a milestone of nearly apocalyptic modernism, Petrushka strikes a brilliant balance and may well be the foremost of the triptych to most music lovers. At its peak, Petrushka was hailed as total triumph of complete, unified art: theatre, set and costume design, dancing, acting, story telling and ultimately glorious music. At its core is the timeless tale of a love triangle and a hapless, human soul suffering a tragic end, perhaps with a final moment of vengeance.

According to Stravinsky, the initial music came to him before the specific scenario involving Petrushka. He relates in his autobiography, “Before tackling The Rite of Spring, which would be a long and difficult task, I wanted to refresh myself by composing an orchestral piece in which the piano would play the most important part . . . I had in my mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating to the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios. 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.” Eventually, Stravinsky seized on the traditional character of Petrushka, the Russian Guignol or Punch, a Harlequin, and collaborated with Alexandre Benois for the stage action and final scenario. Centered on a pre-Easter carnival fair starring a magician and a puppet show involving Petrushka, a ballerina and a Moor, the ballet traditionally comprises four tableaux:

I. The Shrove-Tide Fair. A vibrant, outdoor fair in St. Petersburg (c.1830) during carnival features crowds, booths, hawkers and various attractions including revelers, an organ grinder, a dancing girl and a music box. Eventually, a magician appears drawing attention to his little puppet theatre. He plays a tune on his flute, the curtain rises and the puppets come to life. Petrushka, the ballerina and the Moor join in a wild Russian dance.

II. Petrushka’s Room. A crash, the door opens and Petrushka is kicked into his bare, small cell, falling to the floor. A prisoner, a puppet with a human soul, Petrushka expresses rage and frustration with his situation, agonizing over his unrequited love for the ballerina who briefly enters the room and leaves again, uninterested.

III. The Moor’s Room. The ballerina enters the Moor’s quarters, swooning for the handsome, brutish man. They make love and dance as two distinct musical themes intertwine. Petrushka enters to behold the tryst but is chased away by the jealous, menacing Moor.

IV. The Shrove-Tide Fair. The action returns to the sweeping, kaleidoscopic scene of the fair with a variety of dances including a peasant piper leading a bear on a leash. A sudden cry draws attention to the little theatre again where the Moor chases Petrushka to the screams of the anxious ballerina. The Moor kills Petrushka with one blow of his scimitar. The crowd is aghast and a policeman is summoned, but the magician reassures everyone it is just a puppet show: the characters are not real. As the crowd disperses and the magician packs up, the ghost of Petrushka appears above the theatre leering and thumbing his nose at the magician who, suddenly terrified, runs off into the darkness.

Stravinsky’s music so effectively captures the scene, the characters and the action that it can easily stand alone as a vivid musical narrative. Bursting with color, shimmering ostinati, folk tunes, recurring leitmotifs and the bracing bi-tonal chords that make up the famous Petrushka theme, this legendary score has been artfully arranged by Yuval Shapiro for chamber ensemble placing Stravinsky’s legendary composition in strong relief while retaining its essential verve and dramatic power.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.