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Three Movements from Petrushka

December 15, 2019: Andrew Tyson, piano

After the brilliant success of Stravinsky’s ballet Firebird in 1910, dance impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the composer made plans for what was to be their next collaboration: The Rite of Spring, a spectacle of Russia in pagan times. Before tackling this new ballet, however, Stravinsky wanted to refresh himself by composing:

an orchestral piece in which the piano would play the most important part—a sort of Konzertstück. . . . In composing the music I had in mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggi. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts. The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet. This bizarre piece having been completed, I sought for hours, while walking beside Lake Geneva, to find a title that would express in a single word the character of my music and consequently the personality of this creature.

One day I jumped for joy—Petrushka! The immortal and unhappy hero of all the fairs in all countries: I had found my title! [Petrushka is the Russian equivalent of Punch.)

Imagine Diaghilev’s astonishment when he visited Stravinsky in Lausanne expecting sketches for The Rite of Spring and instead being confronted with a substantial installment of a completely different work, and one intended for concert rather than stage performance! He immediately saw the dramatic possibilities of Petrushka and persuaded Stravinsky to expand it into a ballet by developing the theme of the puppet’s sufferings. They agreed on the scene of action: the annual Shrove-tide Fair in Admiralty Square, St. Petersburg. Thus Stravinsky’s “diversion” became another substantial stage work, exactly the sort of piece from which he was trying to take a vacation.

Petrushka took shape as four scenes or tableaux. The personalities of the three puppets—Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Moor—are developed most in the middle two tableaux, framed by the outer scenes of the Shrove-tide Fair.

In 1921 Artur Rubinstein commissioned Stravinsky to write a piano version of the famous ballet that had featured the piano so prominently. Stravinsky complied with his Three Movements, which contain more than half of the music of the original ballet. The first movement consists of the Russian Dance, which the three puppets perform when they have been charmed to life by the flute-playing of the charlatan-magician. The second movement, In Petrushka’s Cell, features the Moor, Petrushka’s rival for the affections of the Ballerina, and the final movement depicts the Shrove-tide Fair, with its Russian folk dances that contributed so much to the work’s great popularity.

The success of Stravinsky’s piano transcription lies perhaps in his aim to create “something proper to the instrument” rather than a mere translation of orchestral sounds. Rubinstein, to whom the Three Movements are dedicated, achieved a great triumph with the suite, which ranks among the most virtuoso works in the piano repertoire.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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