The meeting of Diaghilev and Stravinsky was inspired by a performance of the latter playing his piano version of Fireworks in 1909. Diaghilev commissioned him to write The Firebird, and although Stravinsky was 27 and unknown at this time, he still possessed the chutzpah to verbalize his reluctance to compose within constraints or to collaborate with set designer Alexandre Benois and choreographer Mikhail Fokine.

The Firebird, of course, was a huge success. But it was their second collaboration – Petrushka – that brought the pair its first multimedia success and freed Stravinsky to put his own stamp on Parisian musical life.

Unlike The Firebird, the idea for Petrushka was Stravinsky’s own. It had haunted him during the final weeks of revisions for Firebird, and when the project was finished he threw himself into the first sketches. Stravinsky wrote to his mother: “…my Petrushka is turning out each day completely new and there are new disagreeable traits in his character, but he delights me because he is absolutely devoid of hypocrisy.” Petrushka is a descendant of the commedia dell’arte Pulcinella, a clown representing the trickster archetype. He is playful, quarrelsome, mercurial, antiauthoritarian, naughty, but of course indestructible, which is the reason for his appeal. Other characters evolved: the Blackamoor, Petrushka’s nemesis and eventual murderer; the Ballerina, a Ballets Russes version of the commedia dell’arte Columbine – pretty, flirtatious, shallow, irresistible; and the Magician, who reveals Petrushka’s immortality.

The concert version of Petrushka comprises four tableaux – imagine scenes from a storybook come to life. The first tableau depicts the last days of Carnival, 1830, Admiralty Square, old St. Petersburg. The music opens with a bustling fair day: crowds and glittering attractions everywhere reflected in the constantly shifting rhythms and harmonies, and in orchestration that alternates and ultimately merges high winds and bell-like tones in piano with thrusting low strings, erupting into a fantastic, oddly accented full-orchestra fiesta. Two drummers appear outside a puppet theater, and a drum roll (a connecting device that runs throughout the work) knocks the crowd into pregnant silence. The Magican appears to the mesmerizing twists and turns of the orchestra, featuring an undulating, almost lurching, flute solo, and the sinister spell is cast. Petrushka is introduced with the other major connective device of the work: the “Petrushka Chord,” a tone cluster made of the major triads of C and F-sharp that weaves the work together both harmonically and melodically. Here we also meet the Ballerina and the Blackamoor, and the three together do a warped, angular, yet still quite folksy Russian dance.

Tableau two: Clarinet, bassoon, horn, and muted trumpets evoke Petrushka alone in a gloomy cell. Piano arpeggios accompany the puppet’s dreaming of freedom, which escalates to enraged cries in the trumpets and trombones. Solo flute re-enters with a flirty little tune, shifting the mood to portray the Ballerina, whom Petrushka loves. She will tease, but of course wants nothing to do with him.

Who the Ballerina really wants is the Blackamoor, the bad boy who is the center of the third tableau. A clumsy, banal tune played by solo winds and pizzicato strings, all sounding slightly out of sync with each other, accompanies their lovemaking. Petrushka crashes the party, and the Blackamoor chases him into the crowd.

In the final tableau, after the music of the fair scene, the Blackamoor pursues Petrushka and murders him. The Magician realizes that Petrushka is a puppet, and when Petrushka’s ghost appears the Magician runs away scared; the recurring “Petrushka chord” gives the last laugh. Stravinsky later said he was “more proud of these last pages than of anything else in the score.”

Petrushka opened on June 13, 1911, at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris to overwhelming success. Conducted by Pierre Monteux, then 36, the performance was praised as a feat of sophisticated, intellectual theatrical folklorism.

Back in St. Petersburg the work was criticized by Russian ears that heard only a patchwork of Russian pop tunes, rural folksong, and ambient noise loosely tethered with “modernist padding,” as Prokofiev called it.  

– Meg Ryan