The Color and Magic of Stravinsky’s Petrushka

Vaslav Nijinsky dancing the title role in Petrushka.
Vaslav Nijinsky danced the title role in Petrushka at the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1911.

 

Tricksters relish the disruption of the status quo, turning the Ordinary World into chaos with their quick turns of phrase and physical antics.  Although they may not change during the course of their Journeys, their world and its inhabitants are transformed by their antics.  The Trickster uses laughter [and ridicule] to make characters see the absurdity of the situation, and perhaps force a change.

-Joseph Campbell

Petrushka, a centuries-old archetypal character in Russian folk puppetry, is the quintessential trickster. He’s the Russian equivalent of the English puppet, “Punch”-a subversive jester who straddles the comic line between benevolent and aggressive. Petrushka is the clown that makes you slightly uncomfortable.

As Igor Stravinsky’s 1911 ballet began to take shape, he wrote in a letter,

…my Petrushka is turning out each day completely new and there are new disagreeable traits in his character, but he delights me because he is absolutely devoid of hypocrisy.

Throughout the ballet, Stravinsky identifies Petrushka with a distinctive and slightly menacing chord, heard first in the clarinets at this moment. The “Petrushka chord” combines two triads (C major and F-sharp major). Played together, a tritone apart, they clash with striking dissonance. The same chord can be heard in Maurice Ravel’s Jeux d’eauwritten ten years earlier in 1901.

Petrushka opens with the bustle of St. Petersburg’s Admiralty Square during the Shrovetide Fair carnival (Mardi Gras). We hear the crowd’s exuberant shouts in Stravinsky’s music, as well as the brief, cranky sounds of an organ grinder. Attention shifts to a puppet theater and a Magician, introduced by mystical and exotic sounds in the bassoon and contrabassoon (beginning around the 5:18 mark in the clip below). Three puppets (Petrushka, the Moor, and the Ballerina) come to life as the Magician touches them with a flute (6:52). Petrushka is in love with the Ballerina. Although she flirts and teases him (11:00-11:42), she only cares for the Moor. In the ballet’s Third Tableau, the imprisoned Petrushka breaks free and jealously attacks the Moor, interrupting his seduction of the Ballerina. The Moor beats Petrushka, who flees. Ultimately, the Moor catches Petrushka, fatally stabbing him as the horrified Shrovetide Fair crowd looks on. A policeman is called and the Magician holds up Petrushka’s “corpse,” showing that it is only a puppet. The crowd disperses and the Magician is left alone on the stage. Suddenly, Petrushka’s ghost appears above the puppet theater. In the ballet’s final bars, we hear the “Petrushka chord” leeringly in the muted trumpets (the passage begins at 33:05). As the immortal spirit of Petrushka has the last laugh, the terrified Magician flees. The line between the perceived illusion of the puppet show and “reality” vanishes.

Chronologically, Petrushka sits squarely between two other monumental ballet scores Stravinsky wrote for Diaghilev’s influential Ballets Russes in Paris: The Firebird (1910) and The Rite of Spring (1913). At moments, Petrushka anticipates the primordial, raw power of the Rite. But listen closely, and you’ll also hear surprising echoes of the music of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian Romantics (For example, the orchestration and sudden turn to major here and the harmony at this moment).

At times, Petrushka grabs our attention with ostinato passages which are simultaneously static and bursting with activity. For example, listen to the colorful new sonic world we enter at the opening of the Fourth Tableau. This is the moment in the ballet when the action stops briefly as we indulge in a series of dances and, in this case, a celebration of the Russian folk song. The song “Down the Petersky Road” emerges out of the bubbling anticipation of woodwinds in the Wet Nurses’ DanceFollowing the Peasant and Bear and the Dance of the Gypsies, comes the mighty Dance of the Coachmenwhich culminates in an exhilarating canon between the brass and violins.

Here is the 1947 version of Petrushka with Amsterdam’s Concertgebow Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons. There’s a special “edge of your seat” electricity in this 2011 performance:

The Road to Happiness in Music

Musician's SoulViolinist Holly Mulcahy has written an interesting and insightful post about finding happiness and keeping perspective while pursing a competitive career in music. Holly is the concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony and the author of the popular blog, Neo ClassicalIf you’re a young musician enduring the rigors of the audition circuit in the hopes of winning the “big job,” Holly’s post is a must read. Even if you’re not a musician, you’ll find her thoughts relevant.

Reading Holly’s post, I was reminded of this quote by Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth:

[quote]If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.[/quote]

James Jordan’s book The Musician’s Soul offers additional wisdom. The book stresses the importance of openness and vulnerability in the creative process as well as finding your center and appreciating the importance of solitude as well as community. There are many great quotes throughout the book. Here are a few:

[quote]If people are not humane, what is the use of rites? If people are not humane, what is the use of music?[/quote]

-Confucius

[quote]It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.[/quote]

-e.e. cummings 

[quote]No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.[/quote]

-Helen Keller

[quote]Our problems are inside our lives, yes; but our lives are lived inside fields of power, under the influence of others, in accordance with authority, subject to tyrannies. Moreover, our lives are lived inside fields of power that are our cities with their offices and cars, systems of work and mountains of trash. These too are powers impinging in our souls. When the wider world breaks down and is sick at heart, the individual suffers accordingly.[/quote]

-James Hillman 

[quote]Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.[/quote]

-Leo Tolstoy

Music of the Hunt

Vanity Sounds the Horn and Ignorance Unleashes the Hounds Overconfidence, Rashness, and Desire (from The Hunt of the Frail Stag), 1500–1525 South Netherlandish
“Vanity Sounds the Horn and Ignorance Unleashes the Hounds Overconfidence, Rashness, and Desire” (from The Hunt of the Frail Stag) , Dutch tapestry, 1500–1525

The sound of horns and trumpets evokes ancient and sometimes subconscious associations. Horns were used during the hunt to call hounds because their sound was similar to the human voice but could carry for great distances. Trumpets served as a way to communicate on the battlefield during military campaigns. Originally these instruments were played without valves. Only pitches in the harmonic series were available, leading to a uniquely “open” sound.

Let’s listen to a few pieces that were inspired by sounds of the hunt:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Paganini Caprice No. 9 in E Major[/typography]

Paganini’s Caprice No. 9 for violin imitates the sound of hunting horns. Here is a great performance by James Ehnes:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Hunter’s Chorus[/typography]

Suzuki violin students learn an arrangement of Carl Maria Von Weber’s Hunter’s Chorus in Book 2. Here is the original version from Act 3 of Weber’s opera, Der Freischütz. Read the synopsis of the opera here.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Bruckner’s “Hunt” Scherzo[/typography]

Anton Bruckner drew upon the mythical associations of horns and trumpets in the Scherzo of Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major. Listen to the sense of quiet excitement and anticipation Bruckner creates in the opening of this movement as a medieval forest awakens. Notice the sound of distant, echoing horn and trumpet calls around 1:27. At 4:05 you’ll hear a more pastoral trio section before the return of the Scherzo.

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Listen to Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic perform Bruckner’s entire Symphony No. 4 here. The opening of the first movement, which also features the horn, emerges out of silence. The hushed string tremolo creates an intense rumble which seems otherworldly.

Did I miss any significant pieces which are inspired by the hunt? Share your own music in the thread below.

[quote]The basic hunting myth is of a kind of covenant between the animal world and the human world. The animal gives its life willingly, with the understanding that its life transcends its physical entity and will be returned to the soil or to the mother through some ritual of restoration. -Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”[/quote]