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The Suite italienne is one of several spin-offs from Pulcinella, the “ballet with song” that Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) composed for the Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev in 1920. “Composed” in this case being a somewhat misleading verb, as Diaghilev had found tunes he wanted to use by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736), which he gave to Stravinsky to arrange. (Massine also based his choreography on 18th-century Neapolitan steps.) This borrowing was controversial at the time, as was the “neo-Classical” direction Stravinsky’s music suddenly took, spiking the Baroque harmonies with dissonances, goosing the regular meters, and generally creating witty, ironic musical mayhem.
The brio and charm of the music was undeniable, however, and Stravinsky capitalized on it with various arrangements, including several suites of excerpts from the ballet’s 18 numbers for violin and/or cello and piano. Neither Stravinsky nor Diaghilev were aware at the time that Pergolesi was a popular name that 18th-century publishers slapped on just about any piece by a lesser-known contemporary that needed a sales boost. Of this Suite, only the Serenata and Menuetto are based on actual Pergolesi melodies. The Introduzione, Tarantella, Scherzino, and Finale are based on music by Domenico Gallo, and the Gavotta con due variazioni came originally from Carlo Monza.