December 15, 2019: Benjamin Beilman, violin; Andrew Tyson, piano
The ballet Pulcinella, from which the Suite italienne was drawn, was Stravinsky’s first Neoclassic—or rather “neo-Baroque”—composition. He had been approached by impresario Sergei Diaghilev in 1919 about writing an entirely different kind of ballet than the dramatically innovative Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and Rite of Spring (1913). Diaghilev had in mind the recent success of Vincenzo Tommasini’s The Good-humored Ladies, based on harpsichord sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, and asked Stravinsky to consider works by another eighteenth-century Italian, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Stravinsky thought Diaghilev had gone mad, but agreed to look at his selections.
“I looked and I fell in love,” Stravinsky later recalled. Scholars have more recently questions Pergolesi’s authorship of some of these pieces, but they nevertheless provided a turning point for Stravinsky. “Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late works became possible,” he wrote in Dialogues and a Diary. Diaghilev’s conception called for the dancers to take on the roles of eighteenth-century commedia dell’arte characters, and Stravinsky came up with twenty numbers to fit Diaghilev’s scenario. Retaining most of the original melodies and bass lines from the “Pergolesi” selections, Stravinsky provided more pungent harmonies, ostinato patterns, and slightly uneven phrase lengths. His original score called for an eighteenth-century-sized orchestra with concertino and ripieno parts, as in a concerto grosso, and three vocalists singing from the pit.
Alarming differences of opinion among Diaghilev, Picasso (scenery and costume designer), Massine (choreographer and lead dancer), and the composer threatened the production, but the result, first performed at the Paris Opera House on May 15, 1920, apparently satisfied all those involved. An overwhelming popular success, Pulcinella nevertheless elicited criticism of Stravinsky’s new style as pastiche, too simple, and worst of all, a renunciation of his Russian heritage. History has proved otherwise.
Like most worthwhile ballet music, Pulcinella also became a concert-hall favorite in many different arrangements: an eleven-movement orchestral suite (c. 1922); a five-movement version entitled Suite for violin and piano, after themes, fragments, and pieces by Giambattista Pergolesi (1925) for violinist Paul Kochánski; the five-movement Suite italienne for cello and piano (1932), arranged with the help of cellist Gregor Piatigorsky; and the present six-movement Suite italienne for violin and piano (1932) in collaboration with violinist Samuel Dushkin, for whom Stravinsky also wrote the Violin Concerto.
The violin version of the Suite italienne contains the mock pompous Introduzione, which served as Pulcinella’s overture (originally the first movement of a trio sonata); the charming, slightly melancholy Serenata, a tenor solo in the ballet (based on a tenor aria in the opera Il flaminio, 1735); and the lively Tarantella (originally the third movement of a trio sonata). The Gavotta con due variazioni follows (originally from the first set of Eight Lessons for the Harpsichord). The fifth movement, Scherzino, absent from the 1925 violin suite, was a presto tenor solo in Pulcinella (originally from the Overture to Act III of Lo frate ’nnamorato, 1732). The final movement contains both a stylized minuet and a brilliant finale (originally a canzona from Lo frate ’nnamorato and the third movement of another trio sonata, respectively).
© Jane Vial Jaffe