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Stravinsky’s Petrouchka

Cynthia Ellis | July August 2009

    Petrouchka is a revolutionary work that was written for the ballet, but is now considered a  standard in the orchestral repertory. It chronicles the Russian story of a puppet that comes to life: the big flute cadenza represents the magician bestowing human emotions upon the puppet.
    Composed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Petrouchka premiered on June 13, 1911 under conductor Pierre Monteux with choreography by Mikhail Fokine. The title role was danced by the great Vaslav Nijinsky. The production was largely viewed as a success, but Stravinsky’s music was criticized as being caustic and difficult to play and listen to. However, curiously, this piece includes many pre-existent melodies: either Russian folk songs or popular tunes of the day. It was Stravinsky’s radical harmonies that changed them from the expected to the radical.
     The musical density and motivic layers of the composition give it unusual complexity, while the now famous Petrouchka chord is a pungent twist on typical tonality. This chord consists of two major triads separated by a tritone, with the lower triad in the first inversion. This is interesting to our 21st-century ears, but to audiences at the turn of the 20th century, it must have sounded very strange indeed. Only the trumpets and clarinets get to play at this wonderfully strange moment in the score, but there are plenty of great moments for the piccolo!
    There are two different versions of the work. The original 1911 score has four flutes, with the 3rd and 4th flutes doubling on piccolo. The newer 1947 version, which is the topic of this article, is scored for three flutes, with the 3rd doubling on piccolo. The parts in the 1911 version list the dramatic action that accompanies the music throughout the score. 
    The story line is full of drama, and the work is highly programmatic. The play opens during the fair known as Maslenitsa, a Russian equivalent to Mardi Gras. The three puppets: Petrouchka, a Ballerina, and a Moor, are on a tiny stage in the midst of the festivities, and the puppet master, awakens the puppets by casting a magic spell with his flute. This music starts to make the puppets human as they can now feel a wide palette of emotions.  
    The second section of the work turns to the inner life of the now more human puppets. Petrouchka leads a dismal life outside of his performances; living in his tiny cell offstage infuriates him. He is frustrated because he cannot woo the Ballerina, and she eventually falls in love with the Moor, who ends up killing Petrouchka during the fourth scene.
After the puppet is dead, the magician is terrified when he sees Petrouchka’s ghost. He tries to decide if Petrouchka is merely a lifeless puppet or a real and terrifying ghost. Who is real and who is not?
    The piccolo part for Petrouchka is a busy one with many solos and important textural passages, such as the lead line in a melody. In the music for the Shrovetide Fair the piccolo is the highest voice. Play quarter notes that are slightly spaced. Stay relaxed and open on the high Cs, and they will respond beautifully. 

    As always with Stravinsky, rhythmic discipline is very important. Count carefully, especially during the mixed meter passages that pervade the opening of the work. 
The first true solo happens during the magic music section, following the flute cadenza. Incorporate the grace notes into the rhythmic structure so they do not disturb the rhythmic framework. Play the last two gestures with a light staccato: the piccolo is all alone here.

    There is a beautiful cantabile passage with the piano during the second part of the work: it occurs when Petrouchka feels desolate and empty   about life in the cell. The stacatto in the second bar should be interpreted as a soft lift to the note: play gentle grace notes here as well.

    Bring out the motive in the fourth section of the work at 164; it doubles the piano. Stravinsky always loved colorful orchestration. Piccolo and piano are the only two parts with quintuplets. Make sure the groups of 5 are even, and use a lean tone so you can project this idea through the very heavy orchestral texture. 

    The final example is part of the Petrouchka ghost music. The 16th  notes are doubled with the principal flute. Play quite mechanically, almost dispassionately here until the solo after 259, which can be played quite expressively: use a warm sound and gentle articulation. This is an unaccompanied solo, so you can use a bit of rubato if you choose.

    There are many small solo chirps and motives sprinkled throughout the entire piccolo part. Count carefully so you are confident about all of the entrances. It is easy to enjoy this virtuosic work. Brilliant orchestration really makes it come alive.