Stravinsky – Petrouchka – Goossens

Pétrouchka – Ballet Music
Igor Strawinsky
Royal Albert Hall Orchestra
Conducted by Eugene Goossens
Part I THERE remains always this one fact – that Strawinsky endows his music with singular fascination – however controversy rages over the question of this radically modern composer and his music. Look upon “Pétrouchka” in its most definite and obvious character, namely, that of purely descriptive music that accompanies a ballet and tells a story; look upon it, if you will, as an outstanding development of new thought in musical composition; perceive in it, as you may while it unfolds its story of Russian peasant life, an acrid and bitter satire, or refuse to take it seriously, and cheerfully revel in its exotic splendor and intriguing rhythms: whatever your attitude you cannot evade the strange new music.

The first part of the suite seems colored with a mood of expectancy. A rippling, somewhat dissonant figure in the wood wind, that soon grows to proportions that involve the entire orchestra, is first heard; then comes the brilliant description of the holiday throng at a Russian carnival. The noisy, colorful crowds come and go, drawn now by a fakir with his tawdry wares, and again by a hurdy-gurdy man, his poor music muffled as they press about him, but coming strong and brave when he finds a little space. Arguing, laughing, bustling, the crowd wanders aimlessly,

Part II CONFUSION? Yes, but a crowd is confusion. Strawinsky is a realist, and therefore as the crowd is a confusion of movement and color, so is the music. Yet as the story of “Pétrouchka” begins to unfold, the crowd, though still in a state of flux and a mass of clashing colors, takes its subordinate place in the well-ordered picture. The holiday throng eventually seem attracted to the booth of a “focusnik,” or showman, who as he prepares to open the curtain on his puppet show, plays a little on his flute. Presently he animates his puppets, among whom there are three chief characters, Pétrouchka, an ugly but sensitive and much abused clown; the Ballerina, loved by Pétrouchka and by the Moor, who is the third principal character. The jealousy between the two is the cause of the final pursuit and killing of Pétrouchka by the Moor.

But in this scene the puppets gaily dance at the command of the showman. Listening to the lively dance tune, first played by the full orchestra, and then, after an interval filled with various incidental figures, coming in turn from the xylophone, the piano, the strings, and the wood-wind, one can almost see the stiff-legged, angular dance of the puppets upon their little stage. Bold, defiant chords efface the picture in a few moments, and presently the record ends.

Part III A RATHER leisurely fusillade of the drum serves as a sort of entr’acte, keeping the attention of the spectators focussed upon the stage while the scene is being changed. Pétrouchka, who, according to a convention of the puppet-show, has been endowed with human passions, tries to find relief from his master’s (the showman’s) cruelty by attempting to win the sympathy and the love of the Ballerina. Here he is courting her.

Passages of fairy beauty come rippling one after the other in this section of the suite, their ethereal quality the more emphasized by occasional harsh, dissonant and hysterical outbursts. The awkward wooing of the clown-doll Pétrouchka, perhaps accompanied with weird grimaces and grotesque postures as he tortures his soul in an effort to wring from it words to express his love; the dainty Ballerina, skipping about on tiny toes, enticing, mocking, maddening in her elusiveness – the music paints this scene. Harps sound glittering roulades; the clarinet complains, the entire orchestra protests; weird dialogs engage various members of the wood-wind section; flute and piano pursue one another to dizzy heights and down. A queer plaintive utterance of the clarinet, and then comes the rumble of the drum that again indicates a change of scene.

Part IV THE roll of the side-drum and tambour de Provence, continued from the other side of the record, is first heard as this part of the ballet begins; it is followed by barbaric chords in the brass and wood-wind, and a quaint wandering melody woven against a rhythm supplied by the ‘cello and the bass clarinet. Ornamental figures, high-pitched and keen, flicker and are gone. Inarticulate phrases, wavering between harmony and dissonance, come from various sections of the orchestra, and presently, as the record closes, the cornet speaks in a sort of glad surprise.

The music recorded here accompanies the dance of the Moor, who, no doubt in a ecstasy of joy and love, springs hither and thither about the stage of the little theatre, now whirling madly for an instant, and again falling into grotesque attitudes. His brilliant garments flare and flash as he leaps, and the crowd about the showman’s booth utter exclamations of pleasure and astonishment. Toward the end a note of uncertainty seems to enter, as if the dancer, at first so sure-footed and energetic in his complicated steps, were losing both breath and confidence. Then as the cornet utters its bright figure, the Ballerina, light as a feather upon her twinkling toes, and coyly shaking her little curls under the very nose of the great dark Moor, enters the little theatre.

Part V FOR a few moments the infatuated Moor watches the little Ballerina as she evolves her graceful steps, and then, intoxicated with her beauty, his love, and the rhythm of the dance, he joins her. The two now gracefully waltz about the stage, followed in every movement by the fascinated eyes of the crowd, who utter subdued exclamations of delight as the agile pair pirouette here and there about the tiny theatre. Meanwhile the orchestra, or rather a section of it composed of wood-wind and brass instruments, plays a simple melody, leading to the waltz of the Moor and the Ballerina – a bright, lively waltz to which both harps as well as other instruments of the orchestra lend their colors. The dance progresses until Pétrouchka appears, his coming being indicated by a rather portentous figure given largely to the strings. The music grows agitated as the Moor and Pétrouchka quarrel, strings and wood-wind giving forth sharp, discordant utterances like angry words. The Ballerina has disappeared at the first sign of trouble, and seizing the opportunity, the cruel Moor sends his rival crashing against the wall of the theatre. Then darkness comes and the scene changes again.

Now the action of Pétrouchka’s tragedy is suspended while the composer devotes himself to the musical description of various incidents.

Part VI IT IS not to be supposed that each phrase of the “Pétrouchka” orchestral suite is pertinent to the story of the poor doll-clown and his doll-love. While it is true that the sequence of the story is never completely lost, quantities of episodic matter frequently occur and extend over comparatively long intervals. Just as the crowd about the puppet show might have been distracted from the little drama by the thousand and one interesting incidents of the carnival, so the composer deliberately introduces bits of by-play, as it were, adding greatly to the realism of the work.

The remarkable scenic effects painted by Soudeikine for the performance of the ballet “Pétrouchka” at the Metropolitan Opera House are not richer in variety or in gorgeous coloring than this part of the ballet music, and they are scarcely more descriptive. Here we have the bustle of crowds, the lively dancing of a group of girls, and suddenly a commotion and an uproar as a peasant comes leading a great bear, whose ponderous strides are expressed in a strange up and down figure for the bass clarinet. The crowd separates to allow the bear to pass, and shrieks when at his master’s piping the great creature “walks like a man.” One group dances then to strange music, and finally everyone scrambles madly as a merchant amuses himself scattering money about.

Part VII IT IS no exaggeration to say that as a composer, Igor Strawinsky is “unique.” While respecting the basic canons of composition he has endowed his writings with complete individuality and originality of concept, of structure, of purpose and most notably of orchestration. Upon this last depend the curious tonal effects in which ”Pétrouchka” is particularly rich. Instruments rarely heard in the symphony orchestra have here been employed with highly interesting and, in some cases, startling effect. The piano, almost never heard as an integral part of the orchestra, has prominent passages in “Pétrouchka”; the cornet, glockenspiel, four-hand celesta, xylophone, five varieties of drums, are among other instruments whose resources the “Pétrouchka” ballet music demands.

The seventh section of the suite, as recorded here, continues the description of various incidental episodes. Gypsies dance, a passerby plays on the accordion, and the entire scene is filled with color and movement. The combined dance of groups of nurses, coachmen with heavy stamping boots, grooms and masquers, involving many of the melodic and rhythmic elements of the entire suite, is particularly interesting as an example of the traditional Russian intuition for rhythm and Strawinsky’s own adroitness in composition.

Part VIII IN AN instant the action of the ballet reverts to the drama of Pétrouchka, the Moor and the Ballerina. The jealousy between the two lovers of the pretty doll flames for an instant; Pétrouchka runs from the little theatre, pursued by the Moor with drawn sword. The Ballerina, sensing the impending tragedy, tries to restrain the latter, but unsuccessfully. The Moor savagely attacks Pétrouchka and to the consternation of the crowd, kills him. The showman appears, convinces the crowd that Pétrouchka is only a puppet, and drags the body across the stage. The crowd disperses. The wraith of Pétrouchka appears above the stage, and the showman departs, looking fearfully behind him.

The short but tragic conflict of the Moor and Pétrouchka is sharply etched upon the imagination as fierce agitated figures are drawn by the shrill violins. The music follows the luckless Pétrouchka as he dodges this way and that, pursued by the heavy-footed but determined Moor. Finally a tap on the tambour de Basque indicates the sword-thrust that fells him. Eerie harmonies in the horns, interrupted at intervals by sullen utterances of the great tuba and thin cries from the clarinet, indicate the ghostly reappearance of the slain puppet, and precede the final sardonic pizzicati that mark the end of the ballet.

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