Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) was born in Oranienbaum, Russia, and grew up in Saint Petersburg. He studied piano, music theory, and composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. His first works bear the stamp of his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, especially the Symphony in E Flat (1907). Debussy and impressionism influenced his writing in Scherzo fantastique (1907–8) and Fireworks (1908). These works caught the attention of ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who commissioned The Firebird (1909–10) for his Ballets Russes in Paris. The vivid colors and exotic harmonies of The Firebird made Stravinsky an overnight sensation, laying the foundation for numerous further collaborations with Diaghilev, including the two groundbreaking ballet scores Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1912).

Petrushka (1911)

Petrushka is a stylistic bridge between the impressionistic Firebird and the polytonal Rite of Spring. The ballet grew from an idea for a concert piece for orchestra with a prominent piano. In composing the music, Stravinsky had in mind “a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios. The orchestra…retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts. The outcome is a terrific noise that reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapses of the poor puppet.” Stravinsky played the new work to Diaghilev in the autumn of 1910. Diaghilev was enthusiastic, and persuaded Stravinsky to develop the theme of the puppet’s sufferings and turn it into a whole ballet.

Inspired by Pietro-Mira Pedrillo, an Italian jester in the court of Empress Anna of Russia, the character Petrushka appears in various stories, usually depicted as a jester dressed in red. Stravinsky described him as “the immortal and unhappy hero of every fair of all countries.” Alexander Benois, who helped create the ballet’s scenario, explained: “The Magician's magic has imparted to the puppets all the feelings and passions of real people. The most richly endowed…is Petrushka who suffers [the most]. He bitterly senses the cruelty of the Magician, his own bondage, his isolation from the rest of the world, and his deformed and ridiculous appearance.”

The setting of Petrushka is St. Petersburg’s Admiralty Square in the 1830s during Shrovetide Fair, a winter carnival held before Lent. The ballet depicts festive crowds, colorful dances, and tragic drama organized in four tableaux (scenes).

First Tableau: Shrovetide Fair opens with the bustle of the crowd. Strong stamping accents in the full orchestra depict drunken revelers. The carnival barker entertains the crowd (stutters of repeated notes in woodwinds). The revelry quickly resumes. An organ grinder appears in the crowd with a female dancer. The woman dances to the organ grinder’s tune, beating time on a triangle. A second woman steps forward and dances to the accompaniment of a music box (clarinets accompanied by celesta); she is joined by the first dancer. The barker resumes his pitch and the revelers return.

Two drummers step in front of a little theater; their drum rolls draw the crowd. The Magician appears to mysterious music and plays a flourish on the flute. The curtain on the little theater rises to reveal three puppets: Petrushka, the Moor, and the Ballerina. With three short invocations played on his flute, the Magician brings the puppets to life. The puppets run into the stunned crowd and spring into a lively Russian Dance. A second drum roll ends the tableau.

Second Tableau: Petrushka’s Room opens with a short fanfare in the woodwinds, piano and cornet, representing a foot kicking Petrushka into his dark room. A bitonal superimposition of clarinet arpeggios represents, in Stravinsky’s words, Petrushka's “insult to the public.” Trumpets and cornets bark out Petrushka’s curses before pained piano flourishes reveal his longing for the Ballerina, who enters to a short simple tune. The Ballerina fears Petrushka and runs away (clarinet cadenza). Petrushka is left in despair (fluttering woodwinds) then becomes enraged (trumpets and cornets). We again hear Petrushka’s “insult” (high clarinet). A drum roll moves the action to the next tableau.

Third Tableau: The Moor’s Room. The Moor’s existence is happier than Petrushka’s. In his lavishly decorated room, he dances to a mysterious tune in the clarinets with menacing stuttering from the English horn. The Ballerina enters and seduces the Moor with her dance to a solo cornet and snare drum. The two then waltz to a trio of flute, cornet, and bassoon. The dance increases in complexity, though the Moor cannot keep waltz time. Trumpets and cornets announce the appearance of Petrushka at the entrance to the Moor’s room. Petrushka and the Moor fight to a swirling and agitated accompaniment. The Moor gains the upper hand and with repeated blows throws Petrushka out of the room. Another drum roll changes the scene.

Fourth Tableau: Shrovetide Fair (toward evening). The revelers are in full swing. The Nannies’ Dance begins with chirping strings and woodwinds and a lyrical melody in the oboe, horns, and violins. A peasant trods on stage playing a pipe (high, wailing clarinets) followed by a bear walking on its hind legs (solo tuba in its high range). The two disappear into the distance, and the reveling resumes. Enter a Merchant and Gypsy women. The Merchant throws banknotes to the crowd (staccato melody in the strings and swirling woodwinds). The Gypsy women dance to a lively tune in the oboe and English horn accompanied by the Merchant on the accordion, until they all leave the stage. Heavy footfalls in the orchestra herald the Dance of the Coachmen, who are soon joined by the Nannies. Their joyful dance is interrupted by the Mummers (mimes). The Devil Mummer (trumpets and trombones) incites the crowd to frolic, while a stomping tuba and bass trombone add to the buffoonery.

Suddenly, a piercing cry (cornets and trumpets) calls the crowd’s attention to the conflict on the puppet stage. Petrushka flees the stage and plunges into the crowd with the Moor in hot pursuit. The Moor seizes Petrushka, and a blow of his scimitar breaks Petrushka’s skull. Petrushka's head drops. As the stunned crowd gathers around the fallen puppet, the clarinet, solo violin, and bassoon sing his dying last words. A Policeman looks for the Magician (short bassoon tune followed by quick footsteps signaling the Magician's return). The Magician picks up Petrushka's corpse and brandishes it as if to say, “See, it is only a puppet” (muted chord in cornets and trumpets). The crowd disperses, leaving the Magician to drag the corpse back to the theater. The leering ghost of Petrushka appears suddenly above the theater, trumpeting his final “insult to the public” and thumbing his nose at the Magician. The terrified Magician flees while casting frightened glances over his shoulder.

A note on Stravinsky’s 1911 and 1947 versions.

Under Russian law, Stravinsky’s works for the Ballets Russes did not receive international copyright protection. The only way he could regain title was to sign with a Western publisher (Boosey & Hawkes in 1945) and prepare revisions. In 1947 he prepared a radical revision of Petrushka that has been called an old man’s view of a young man’s score, but it reflects the mature Stravinsky after the 1920s. It is also the work of a composer thinking of the concert hall rather than the ballet. The orchestra is slightly smaller: from 4 woodwinds each, generally to 3; pair each of cornets and trumpets to 3 trumpets; 2 harps to 1, and a few reductions in percussion. The piano, which disappears in the last two tableaux in the ballet score, is reinstated, restoring it to its importance in Stravinsky’s first conception of the piece. Greater attention is paid to each instrument’s musical, as opposed to balletic, role. There are different tempo changes and meter alterations (including some simplifications in the First Tableau), and an addition of unballetic staccato, and some items based on harmony are recast in a contrapuntal mode. The optional linking drum rolls are now compulsory. The result is leaner, clearer, and more biting than the somewhat impressionist original.

For many years, the revision was the norm in the concert hall, with the original championed mainly by older French school conductors like Pierre Monteux and Ernest Ansermet. The original score has since picked up a few adherents including Pierre Boulez, Bernard Haitink, Charles Dutoit, Lorin Maazel, and Georg Solti.

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, Dudley House Orchestra, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is also the Operations/Personnel Manager), and is a local freelancer. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener’s Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony.

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