No 20th-century composer was more involved with dance than Stravinsky. He wrote at least 12 scores specifically for ballet production, and choreographers have also found his nontheater works irresistible and have utilized a large number of them for dances.
The original and prime mover of all this Stravinskian dance activity was Serge Diaghilev, the Russian impresario for whom the composer wrote his early (1910-13) triumphant triumvirate of ballets, The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. Reassembling his company after World War I, Diaghilev searched for a project with which to lure Stravinsky back to ballet. Contemplating the success of The Good-Humored Ladies, danced to music of Domenico Scarlatti as arranged by Vincenzo Tommasini, he struck upon the music of Pergolesi as a likely prospect for Stravinsky's manipulation. At first cool to the plan, the composer was won over as he read through the many scores by the 18th-century Italian master that Diaghilev had gathered - not knowing that most of the pieces were not authentic Pergolesi articles.
The task of selecting the music and a scenario was relatively easy. Stravinsky chose various pieces attributed to Pergolesi, and from an old manuscript he took a comic episode whose leading character was Pulcinella, the traditional hero of Neapolitan commedia dell'arte.
The plot is a natural for Stravinsky's sophisticated wit: Pulcinella, sought after by all the girls, is in danger of being killed by their boyfriends. Changing places with his double, who then only pretends to be slain, Pulcinella escapes harm. The would-be assassins disguise themselves as Pulcinella and go to visit their respective sweethearts. Pulcinella, as if risen from the dead, appears. Becoming a magnanimous benefactor, he arranges marriages for the couples and himself weds Pimpinella. Curtain.
Maintaining most of the original melodies and basses, Stravinsky "touches up" the music with added notes and ostinatos, which provide harmonic pungence and rhythmic tautness. He subtly adjusts the phrases, breaking up the formal symmetry, and he colors with an orchestration of characteristic élan and transparency.
The ballet was introduced in Paris on May 15, 1920, with choreography by Léonide Massine - who also danced the title role - and sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso. The concert suite, consisting of 11 movements of the ballet's 18, was made in 1922.
- Orrin Howard served as the Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives for more than 20 years. He continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.