MasterWorks Four: Wolfgang, Felix, and Igor

Saturday, April 17, 2004 - 8:00 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre

Pieces

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Overture to the Marriage of Figaro
Felix Mendelssohn - Concerto for Violin in E Minor, Op. 64
Igor Stravinsky - Petrushka
Program Notes

IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882 - 1971)

PETRUSHKA

Composed: 1910-11, revised 1947
Premiered: Paris, France, 1911

Some might feel that Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps seem a million miles from the lush extravaganza of The Firebird, but there is a thread to be traced linking them all. Never far away is the composer’s adored teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who looms unmistakably over The Firebird, to the extent that Stravinsky has even been accused of plagiarism from the older master. Plagiarism is a strong word, but there are certainly borrowings from Rimsky in The Firebird – and there is a more than a family resemblance between the opening of Petrushka and a passage in Rimsky’s Mlada. As for what seems the huge leap from Petrushka and Le Sacre, the strange fact is that both works were on Stravinsky’s desk simultaneously for three months of 1911. Rimsky had died in 1908, and there was no fixed standard of musical copyright across Europe. Ironically, this affected Stravinsky himself when his works became famous; they were widely pirated, a problem that turned him into a legendarily unforgiving defender of his own rights. The 1947 edition of the score (heard this evening) was made as much to fix the copyright of the music as to delete an offstage band and a harp.

Though it became famous as one of Diaghilev’s ballets, Petrushka was originally intended to be a piano concertino, and the final version retains an important obbligato piano part. Diaghilev heard Stravinsky play through the piece – very badly, as Stravinsky was an indifferent pianist – and immediately suggested turning it into a ballet on the tale of Petrushka, with choreography by Mikhail Fokine and the legendary Nijinsky in the title part. It became a huge European success, despite a frighteningly bad German premiere in which half the orchestra got lost.

Petrushka, the main character of the ballet, is simply the Russian equivalent of the Commedia dell’ Arte character Pulcinella, who later became the subject of another Stravinsky work in his later neo-Classical period. Like Pinocchio, he is the puppet that becomes human – a duality reflected in the jarring bitonal C major/ F# major fanfares that reoccur at strategic points in the music.

The music opens with a bustling evocation of the Shrovetide Fair in St. Petersburg, interrupted by the barrel organ playing the French song La jambe de bois (The Wooden Leg) – a song very much in copyright at the time, as Stravinsky should have known; he had to settle handsomely with the composer’s lawyers when the ballet became a hit.

Drums roll, announcing the enigmatic Puppetmaster and his three wooden stars: Petrushka, the Ballerina and the Moor. These three perform the famous Russian Dance. But Petrushka is no normal wooden doll: the bitonal fanfares, now quiet in the woodwinds, tell us that he is part human and in love with the Ballerina, who rejects him.

The Moor is luckier with the Ballerina’s charms; she portrays her lust for him in a frightening trumpet solo, supposedly played by her on a toy instrument but actually played by the orchestra’s dauntless first trumpet. Petrushka attacks the Moor, who beats him horribly and kicks him from the tent and returns to discussions with the Ballerina.

As the close of the story approaches, the music returns to the Fair music and a sequence of dances – a dancing bear and a band of gypsies are followed by dancing coachmen and, finally, local people lurching into the general frivolity. The music is dominated by an in-joke; Stravinsky quotes the Russian (copyright-free!) folksong Down the Petersky Road – which was his childhood home.

At the climax of all the dancing, Petrushka enters, chased by the Moor, who kills him with a single blow from his Arabian sword. Accused of inciting a real murder, the Puppetmaster holds up Petrushka’s wooden corpse to prove that he is just a wooden doll – when the ghost of Petrushka appears on the roof behind him. The bitonal fanfare tells them and us that a terrifying miracle has taken place; the Puppetmaster flees in terror.

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