About this Piece
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, celesta, piano, percussion (bass drum with attached cymbal, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, snare drum, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone), and strings. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 19, 1928 (four-section suite), Artur Rodzinski conducting.
"I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me… Will I then have to lose myself in this abyss of freedom?" So wrote Igor Stravinsky in his 1946 lectures at Harvard University, collected, translated, and printed as the Poetics of Music.
Time and again throughout his career, Stravinsky grappled with this issue of freedom. The 1908 composition of music for the ballet The Firebird was a turning point for the composer, then 28. It was for him a break from the Russian composers he admired; and yet, the music still affirmed their influence. This was not the Stravinsky we think of now, this was Stravinsky the student of Rimsky-Korsakov and admirer of Tchaikovsky. It was arguably his first mature work and it established him in the world of music and created a favorable relationship with the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the Paris-based Ballets Russes, but it did not establish Stravinsky as the infant terrible whose Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring, 1913) would resonate with musicians, audiences, composers, writers, and scholars for the rest of the century.
Diaghilev and Stravinsky had already agreed on the general outline of their next collaboration (which would become the Rite) when the impresario came to visit the composer in Lausanne. He was surprised to find Stravinsky working on a completely different piece, a semi-concerto for piano and orchestra. It was, according to the composer, a piece with which he could refresh himself. Diaghilev heard possibilities in the nascent Konzertstück and convinced the composer to create a ballet score. The completed work -- Petrushka -- was first performed in 1911 at the Châtelet Theater in Paris, with Pierre Monteux conducting and Vaslav Nijinsky dancing the title role. Stravinsky was responsible for most of the scenario.
Like The Firebird before it, the ballet was a great success; unlike that earlier work, however, Petrushka was a crucial step away from the late-Romantic orchestral prototype. Stravinsky began his turn away from "developmental" form, often instead creating contrasts with bold blocks of sound, a technique which would become a hallmark of his style. This kind of composition has been likened to the paintings of Picasso and Georges Braque, where figures and scenes are distorted and abstracted, where a painted object might be made up of several blocks of loosely related color.
Indeed, the composer explored color and rhythm in ways which were similarly abstracted. He utilized rhythmic groupings which were unbalanced. He truncated melodies. He exploited the capabilities of the orchestras with bold, bright washes of sound that bring to mind the sparkle of vibrant colors. Stravinsky began to use these orchestral colors in the same way that Romantic and Classical composers had used themes, substituting color for melody, musical montage for Brahmsian "developing variations."
Petrushka is also a work which revels in Russian folk music, from the opening notes (an Easter song from Smolensk) to the Gypsy Dance in the fourth scene. This penchant for folk music was to infiltrate his music throughout his career, though never more so than in this work. In Petrushka, we hear Stravinsky finding his voice and building a head of steam that would propel him into the tour de force that would follow in the Rite of Spring. Even so, Petrushka itself was a tour de force, giving the composer the confidence to proceed with what would be his ultimate calling: to reshape the way we think about and hear concert music.
Musicologist Stephen Walsh described the ballet similarly when he wrote in The Music of Stravinsky: "Certainly Petrushka typified the new artistic creed… , a creed of color, movement, and illusion… a new mood in the arts in which the self-absorption and anguish of romanticism and expressionism began to be opposed by an outward-looking objectivity eager to participate in the joy of existence."
In other words -- fittingly and perhaps thoughtfully stated now as we near millennium’s end -- Stravinsky had made peace with the past and felt free to move on.
In October 1946, around the same time as Stravinsky’s remarks at Harvard, he undertook a revision of Petrushka which is the version we hear at these concerts. He substantially changed the orchestration, reworking the music to be more of a concert work and less of a ballet score, and extending the piano part somewhat in Scenes Three and Four; some figures that were harmonic in the original were reworked as contrapuntal lines. Stravinsky also changed the tempo markings considerably throughout the work.
Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, is a writer and program editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl. He teaches music at Loyola Marymount University.