Behind the Music: Stravinsky’s “Petrushka”

Stravinsky’s ballet masterpiece Petrushka is a tantalizing story depicting the love triangle between three puppets and their desires to become flesh and blood. On Sunday, May 19th, 2024, Symphony Orchestra will bring Petrushka to life during their spring concert at Orchestra Hall. Petrushka is a work that fuses music, ballet, and history in perfect balance, featuring many Russian and folk elements that represent Stravinsky’s background. Join us at this upcoming performance of a timeless tragedy about the human condition along a mythical and philosophical journey.

For Petrushka is life itself. All the music in it is full of such energy, such freshness and wit, such healthy, incorruptible merriment, such reckless abandon, that all its deliberate banalities and trivialities, its constant background of accordions not only fail to repel but, quite the contrary, carry us away all the more…

— Nikolai Myaskovsky, Russian composer

Rudolf Nureyev dancing in Petrushka with the Royal Ballet

After composing the brilliant ballet The Firebird for Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet, a young Igor Stravinsky—a relatively unknown composer prior to this success—received resounding acclaim across Europe. Before he started composing work for the Ballet’s following season (which became The Rite of Spring), Stravinsky was inspired to make another work: a little concerto-like piece for piano and orchestra, with the piano representing the coming-to-life of a puppet that dares to push back against the vast orchestra. Petrushka, thus, was born, named after a popular character in Russian fairs, immortalizing Petrushka through this unexpected, impulsive, and buoyant masterpiece. Petrushka became a monumental work for the Russian Ballet and received enormous acclaim throughout Europe and America. 

Igor Stravinsky

The story of Petrushka entangles reality and fantasy, seamlessly transporting the audience from the fairground to the inner world of the puppets. The ballet first takes place on the Admiralty Square in St. Petersburg during the 1830s at the Shrovetide fair, then takes place in the emotional life of the puppet Petrushka, in love with the ballerina, who in turn is enchanted by the Moor. The first scene shows the crowds at the fair watching a showman present three puppets at a small theater, charming them to life with his flute—and to the audiences’ surprise, they come down from the stage and dance among the crowds. In the second scene, however, Petrushka is thrown into a small cell. He dances sadly and laments about his appearance, desperate to win over the ballerina, who is scared of him. Petrushka interrupts the Moor and the ballerina in the third scene, but gets thrown out by the Moor. In the final scene, we return to the main square once again. A chase ensues between the Moor and Petrushka, where the former strikes the latter down with a scimitar. While the wooden body of the puppet disintegrates, the spirit of Petrushka lives on, thumbing his nose at the showman and the crowd. 

Igor Stravinsky, with Vaslav Nijinsky in costume for the former’s 1911 ballet Petrushka.

During the two scenes at the fairground, five Russian folk song melodies are played sentimentally on the cornet, flutes, and harps. From the opening notes—an Easter song from Smolensk—to the dance in the last scene, folk music infiltrates the symphony from beginning to end. Additionally, in the opening scene, Stravinsky incorporated a melody he heard regularly outside his hotel room in Beaulieu named “Elle avait un’jambe en bois,” originally composed by Emile Spencer. 

In October 1946, Stravinsky undertook a revision of Petrushka and reworked the music to be less of a ballet score, and more of a concert work, adding onto the piano score in Scenes Three and Four. He corrected his oversight of his musical protagonist, making the piano a more prominent feature that corresponds to his protagonist. While some claimed that Stravinsky’s only goal was to re-copyright the work, it was actually a happy byproduct of his efforts to realize the full musical potential of the symphony. Today, this version is most widely heard by audiences across the world.

Nikolai Myaskovsky, acclaimed Russian composer and a friend of Stravinsky’s, wrote in his review of the work, “Is Stravinsky’s Petrushka a work of art? I don’t know. Can one call life a work of art? That very life that roars all around us, that calls forth our wrath and our joy, that weeps, that rages, that flows in a swift, broad current? For Petrushka is life itself. All the music in it is full of such energy, such freshness and wit, such healthy, incorruptible merriment, such reckless abandon, that all its deliberate banalities and trivialities, its constant background of accordions not only fail to repel but, quite the contrary, carry us away all the more…The music of this extraordinary ballet has such integrity, energy, and such inexhaustible humor, that one positively loses all desire to attempt a more detailed analysis – it would be like a vivisection.”


Tickets for Symphony Orchestra’s May 19th concert at Orchestra Hall are now on sale. Get your tickets early to skip the line on concert day!

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