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Of all Stravinsky's ballets Petrushka is the most graphic: the one where the music seems most conspiciously to be telling a story, and where, correspondingly, substantial passages suggest action in mime rather than formal dance. The score appears to have been fitted exactly to this particular narrative, whereas, to give just one example, even The Rite of Spring has been shown by Walt Disney to be just as suitable for dinosaurs to dance as ancient Scythians
However, in his own account of the work's genesis, Stravinsky was at pains to affirm that the music of Petrushka came before any notion of subject matter. According to his memoirs, he claimed:
'I wanted to refresh myself by composing an orchestral piece in which the piano would play the most important part... 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 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'.
This sounds like a description of the ballet's second scene, though at this point, so Stravinsky insists, he still did not know he was writing a ballet, even less one with this subject. Speaking of the summer he spent in 1910 writing the piece, he said: 'I struggled for hours, walking beside the Lake of Geneva, to find a title which would express in a word the character of my music... One day I leapt for joy. I had indeed found my title - Petrushka, the immortal and unhappy hero of every fair in all countries.'
All that was needed now was for this unhappy hero to step forward out of the score and dance, and that transition from concert piece into ballet was, again following Stravinsky's story, coaxed into happening by Diaghilev. He visited the composer in Switzerland (this must have been in September or October), heard what had been written of the puppet concerto, and persuaded Stravinsky he had the makings of a ballet.
The rest followed quickly. In October Stravinsky and his family moved to Beaulieu, near Nice, and by December he had added the first scene and the start of the third. Christmas he spent in St Petersburg, discussing the ballet with Diaghilev and with others who would be closely involved: Alexandre Benois, who had a share with him in the scenario and created the designs; Mikhail Fokine, the choreographer; and Vaslav Nijinsky, who was to be the first interpreter of the title role.
In mid-January 1911, having returned to Beaulieu, he wrote back to a Russian friend about the progress of his work: 'My last visit to Petersburg did me much good, and the final scene is shaping up excitingly... quick tempos, concertinas, major keys... smells of Russian food - shchi - and of sweat and glistening leather boots. Oh what excitement!' (It is interesting to note how very Russian he felt the music to be while he was writing it, whereas two decades later, in the memoirs already quoted, he was concerned to present Petrushka as an international figure.)
The final scene was interrupted for a month while Stravinsky was ill with nicotine poisoning. In late April he sent his family back to Russia and went himself to Rome, where the Diaghilev company were appearing and where he completed the score on 26 May. The first performance took place just 17 days later, in Paris, with a cast led by Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina (the Ballerina), Alexandre Orlov (the Moor) and Enrico Cecchetti (the showman), and with Pierre Monteux conducting.
Since then, of course, Petrushka has had a firm place in the ballet repertory, but it turned out too that Stravinsky had, after all, composed a concert piece, as he had originally intended, for the score very quickly became one of his most frequently played orchestral works: he himself often included it in concerts and it was one of the first pieces he conducted for gramophone records, in June 1928.
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'Historically this is really interesting, as it was the ballet that Stravinsky wrote between Rite of Spring and The Firebird, which we've performed recently, so this is sort of completing that trilogy. Musically I find it very intersting - I was introduced to the score at University as an important piece of 20th century music. It was done at a time where everything was getting bigger and bigger; orchestras were increasing in size and pieces were getting longer as well, before such extravagance was all brought to an end by the first world war.'
BRB Shoe Master
Even thought it's only one part of a mixed programme, Petrushka is a very big piece. It's only four scenes but it seems like four acts - there are huge crowd scenes in scenes one and four, and there are lots of actors, lots of colour, lots of costumes and lots of shoes; high production, it's really impressive. It's just absolute sheer bulk, with lots of individual market sellers and bakers and dolls and nursemaids and stable boys and coachmen, and then there's a big mad rush at the end where they all have to get changed into animal costumes – a stork, a pig, a calf, a raven – it's bigger than Sleeping Beauty for me.'
Click on the names for individual biographies
Music Igor Stravinsky
Choreography Mikhail Fokine
Designs Alexander Benois
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