29 Apr 2019

Petrushka – a Listening Guide


29 Apr


Stravinsky's Petrushka tells the fantastical tale of three puppets brought to life at a Shrovetide fair. Inspired by Russian legend, Stravinsky fused traditional folk songs with his own vivid musical storytelling.



The bustling Shrovetide Fair is evoked using a swift succession of contrasting, sometimes overlapping, ideas creating the sensation of moving between areas of the fair. Stravinsky presents us with these strongly rhythmic musical ideas, which he treats as a collage of juxtapositions rather than developing them in depth.

The piece opens with the cries of street hawkers: an undulating texture in the winds supporting a perky flute motif, answered by violins. As the orchestral texture expands, another motif of insistent repeated notes ending with a flourish leads us towards the full orchestra playing Stravinsky’s version of a folk tune, with tingling percussion and the piccolo playing its highest note. The brass announces the Master of Ceremonies; a lugubrious clarinet melody evokes an Organ Grinder. The flutes represent Dancing Girls, one of whom has a music box (the celesta, which uses a keyboard to play tinkling bells); they dance to the chirpy French tune ‘Une jambe de bois’ about a woman with a wooden leg.

A dramatic drumroll interrupts, summoning the crowd to the Magician (bassoon and contrabassoon), who plays a charming melody on his flute. The puppet theatre’s curtain ascends to reveal the Moor, the Ballerina and Petrushka, who awaken to the Magician’s flute. They perform a lively Russian Dance, also based on folk music.



A drumroll leads us from the first tableau to the second, which begins which a violent gesture as Petrushka is kicked onstage. We see the puppet in his room, represented by the ‘Petrushka chord’ outlined by the clarinets (a combination of chords from two different keys, C major and F-sharp major). Petrushka pulls himself together to the sound of the piano, curses the Magician’s portrait (a blast from the trumpet), then, to more lyrical music in  the woodwinds, mimes his love for the Ballerina and his hatred of the Magician. The Ballerina enters but is scared off by Petrushka’s overambitious dancing display; the clarinet laughs at Petrushka as he wilts. More piano music, answered by cor anglais, builds towards an orchestral ‘curse’ at the Magician, and the mocking clarinets signal Petrushka’s collapse, the scene closing with another trumpet blast.



More drumrolls link the tableaux. In the Moor’s exotic room, he dances to a tune on clarinet and bass clarinet, then bassoons. The infatuated Ballerina dances for him to a trumpet melody; they dance a waltz (bassoon, trumpet and flute); their themes overlap. Petrushka escapes from his cell and interrupts before realising he is too weak to win; he is beaten and chased away.



Another drumroll; evening at the fair. We hear a succession of colourful dances: the Wet Nurses’ Dance (an old folk song first heard on the oboe); a pipe-playing peasant and his bear (shrill clarinets, trudging accompaniment); a merchant with two gypsies (a shimmering orchestral texture, proud string theme and vibrant dance); coachmen (heavy, repeated rhythms, joined by the nurses and their tune); masqueraders (quick flourishes, bold brass chords). A cry comes from the puppet theatre (a held trumpet note) and the Moor chases Petrushka onstage, followed by the Ballerina. The Moor stabs Petrushka, who dies (plaintive woodwind solos). A marching bassoon announces the Magician’s arrival; he picks up Petrushka’s corpse (horns) and shakes it (shivering strings). Muted trumpets evoke the ghost of Petrushka appearing and mocking the Magician – who runs away in fright.

Written by Joanna Wyld