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:

Washington’s Birthday

Charles Ives
Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Washington’s Birthday, the first movement of Charles Ives’ Holiday Symphony, emerges out of the desolate, snowy gloom of a midwinter night in rural New England. The music feels strangely amorphous, as if we’ve suddenly slipped into a dream.

As we enter this sonic dreamscape, it’s easy to get the sense that we’re joining music already in progress. Who knows where or when it began? Drifting from one hazy moment to the next, we gradually become aware of a growing hubbub of voices. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the middle of a spirited barn dance. Fragments of old American folk melodies float in and out of our consciousness and begin to blend into a growing, joyful cacophony. With one shocking, climactic chord, our strange dream shows signs of turning into a nightmare. But then, just as suddenly, the night begins to wind down. Amid the final echoes of a fragment of Goodnight, Ladies, our ephemeral vision evaporates…

Here are the opening lines of Charles Ives’ description of Washington’s Birthday:

Cold and Solitude,” says Thoreau, “are friends of mine. Now is the time before the wind rises to go forth to seek the snow on the trees.”

And there is at times a bleakness without stir but penetrating, in a New England midwinter, which settles down grimly when the day closes over the broken-hills. In such a scene it is as though nature would but could not easily trace a certain beauty in the sombre landscape!–in the quiet but restless monotony! Would nature reflect the sternness of the Puritan’s fibre or the self-sacrificing part of his ideals?

Leonard Bernstein’s recording with the New York Philharmonic:

Visit Listeners’ Club posts featuring other movements from Ives’ Holiday Symphony, Thanksgiving Dayand Decoration Day.

Written in 1909

Composed in 1909 and revised and published four years later, Washington’s Birthday is an adventurous journey into atonality. Similar music was pushing the boundaries in Europe. 1909 was the year Anton Webern wrote the groundbreaking Five Movements, Op. 5.  The same year, Claude Debussy began writing his twenty four Préludes for solo piano. Listen to the hazy impressionism of the second Prélude from Book 1, Voiles. This music is constructed on the same whole tone scale Ives uses in the opening of Washington’s Birthday.  

In 1909 Mahler finished Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”). Ravel began work on the ballet Daphnis et Chloé and Stravinsky was a year away from completing The Firebird.

Two Nights on Bald Mountain

From Disney's Fantasia
A scene from Disney’s Fantasia (1940), which popularized Night on Bald Mountain with a version by conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Modest Mussorgsky’s 1867 tone poem, Night on Bald Mountain was inspired by an old Russian legend which was turned into a ghoulish short story by Nikolai Gogol. The story centers around witches, black magic, and events which you might expect in the most grisly horror movie.

Here is Mussorgsky’s description of the musical program for Night on Bald Mountain:

Subterranean din of supernatural voices. Appearance of Spirits of Darkness, followed by that of the god Chernobog. Glorification of the Black God, The Black Mass. Witches’ Sabbath, interrupted at its height by the sounds of the far-off bell of the little church in a village. It disperses the Spirits of Darkness. Daybreak.

The popular version of Night on Bald Mountain we hear performed most often was as much the work of fellow Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as Mussorgsky. Following Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov reworked the score, which he found promising but unwieldily in its original form. He made a similar revision of Mussorgsky’s sprawling opera, Boris Godunov.

Listen to Mussorgsky’s original score, and you’ll hear the extent to which the two “versions” are actually completely different pieces. Mussorgsky’s score may lack the structural refinement and polished orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov’s, but it rumbles with a uniquely terrifying, hellish energy.

Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the most influential orchestrators of the nineteenth century. As you listen to the clip below, notice the ways instrumental voices are combined and the resulting sense of color. For example, listen to the unique texture created by the combination of string tremolos and pizzicatos around the 0:35 mark, and the following splashes of color in the cymbals. Notice the personas which emerge from the clarinet and flute solos in the “daybreak” music at the end. Throughout this passage (beginning at 7:40), the repeated, almost hypnotic bass pizzicatos suggest a distant, ominous funeral procession, subtly reminding us of the terror of the night. Listen to the shimmering purity of the final chord, as it alternates between strings and woodwinds, evoking a colorful sonic kaleidoscope.

Russian nationalism is central to both versions. Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were both part of a circle of five composers (“The Russian Five”) who were dedicated to the promotion of a distinctly Russian style of music. Regarding the composition of Night on Bald Mountain, Mussorgsky wrote in a letter,

The form and character of the composition are Russian and original … I wrote St. John’s Eve quickly, straight away in full score, I wrote it in about twelve days, glory to God … While at work on St. John’s Eve I didn’t sleep at night and actually finished the work on the eve of St. John’s Day, it seethed within me so, and I simply didn’t know what was happening within me … I see in my wicked prank an independent Russian product, free from German profundity and routine, and, like Savishna, grown on our native fields and nurtured on Russian bread.

What qualities make this music, or any music, sound uniquely Russian? Folk music is a starting point. While there may be few overt folk references in Night on Bald Mountain, there are occasional ornamental grace notes which suggest eastern folk influence (for example, 1:56 in the woodwinds). This type of ornament pops up throughout Russian music, even in the flute line at the end of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. 

Another detail which feels distinctly “Russian” is the repetition of a small melodic fragment while the music around it changes (Listen at 2:47 and notice the ascending brass scale which follows, something we hear in Tchaikovsky).

Here is the Rimsky-Korsakov version, performed by the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein:

Now it’s your turn…

Now that you’ve heard both versions, which one do you prefer and why? If you can’t decide between the two, what aspects of the music do you find most interesting? Share your thoughts in the comment thread below.