After the instant success of Stravinsky’s Firebird in 1910, the composer’s collaboration with Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes resulted in a whole series of classics in the next two decades, with the first moment of glory being this Petrushka. Writing this ballet freed Stravinsky and gave him the self-confidence to deal with harmony and tonality in a radically new way. In Petrushka, he found his own voice in the combination of folk tunes, popular French chansons and Viennese waltzes in a colourful orchestration, woven through with sharp dissonances and contrasting rhythms. A veritable tour de force that ushered in a new phase of music history
At the end of the 19th century, French composers such as Claude Debussy, Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel searched for an alternative to the often overly tense and heavy tonality of late German Romanticism. It was no accident that Russian music served as an important source of inspiration to them. There were intense cultural exchanges at the time between the Third French Republic and the Russian Empire, two countries that since the coronation of Czar Nicholas II in 1894 had been diplomatic and military allies and formed a block against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Debussy and Ravel found an interesting alternative to Wagner’s German musical language in the work of Modest Mussorgsky, a composer who often based his melodies and chords on Russian folk songs and Orthodox hymns. The nuanced orchestration of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov also offered them a reservoir of new musical colours.
It was the ingenious impresario Sergey Diaghilev who played a crucial role in disseminating Russian music in France and who keenly responded to the demand by French audiences for something new. From 1907 onward, he presented an annual ‘Russian season’ in Paris, with the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky, among others. It was the Russian ballet in particular that sent Parisians into rapture, so much so that Diaghilev commissioned the young Igor Stravinsky to write a new ‘typical Russian’ ballet. The first result of their collaboration was The Firebird, written in 1910. In this work, Stravinsky radicalized the stylistic features of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov – colourful orchestration and a mix of Russian folklore and exotic fairy tales – and thus created an exciting and unprecedented world of sound. In the following season, Diaghilev and Stravinsky sought to exceed the enormous of The Firebird with a new ballet. Their hope was not in vain, for the premiere of Petrushka.
The work opens with a carnival scene in Saint-Petersburg, where an organist and a dancer are entertaining the audience. Suddenly, the curtain rises on a little puppet theatre. A charlatan presents the viewers with three lifeless puppets: Petrushka (the Russian version of the English Punch or Italian Pulcinella), the Ballerina and the Moor. Stravinsky depicts the carnival atmosphere using folklore-like music and quotes a few folk tunes. In the second and third tableau of the ballet, we see the secret life of the three puppets behind the scenes: Petrushka loves the Ballerina, but she is in love with the Moor. This secret world is evoked by Stravinsky with a modernistic ‘magical’ full of sharp dissonances and contrasting rhythms and tempi. In the fourth tableau, the Moor kills Petrushka among the crowd in the marketplace. When the police question the charlatan, he shakes the sawdust from Petrushka’s body, to remind the audience that it is only a puppet. At night, when the crowd had dispersed and the charlatan had left, the ghost of Petrushka appears on the roof of the puppet theatre and chases his former puppet-master away in terror with a loud shriek. It is unclear to the audience who was ‘real’ and who was not.
Ironically enough, Stravinsky wrote a mechanical, ‘non-human’ music for the ‘human’ scenes with the people. He occasionally gives the orchestra the sound of an enormous accordion, and at other times that of a balalaika. In the Danse Russe that closes the first tableau, the tempo and the dynamics remain unchanged for pages on end. A greater contrast between this consciously anti-expressive music and German Romanticism could hardly be imagined at the time. For the ‘non-human’ puppets Stravinsky wrote a highly expressive, and thus ‘human’ music. He handled the harmony and tonality so radically that the second tableau of Petrushka was for long considered the ‘nec plus ultra’ of modern music. The most remarkable element was certainly what has come to be known as the Petrushka chord, with which Stravinsky combined the far distant triads of C major and F-sharp major. The fact that he used this extremely dissonant chord at moments of conflict or pain demonstrates that he put his radically modernist musical language at the service of an overwhelmingly traditional expressive message and an immediately understandable dramaturgy.