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The Puppets of Petrushka

The Puppets of Petrushka

This interview was first published in ANAM's Music Makers Newspaper V32. 
Words by Eudardo Strausser, ANAM Guest Conductor 

When Sergei Diaghilev presented his first Saison Russe in 1909 he was already a very successful impresario in the Parisian arts scene. Little did he know that what would be renamed the following year as the Ballets Russes would not only promote Russian contemporary art in the West but also change the course of music history. 

During a period of 20 years, the Ballets Russes promoted unprecedented ground-breaking artistic collaborations among choreographers, designers, dancers and composers. Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Vasily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, Coco Chanel, Jean Cocteau, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky worked for the company. Under the direction of Diaghilev these young artists introduced European audiences to vibrant and sensational elements of Russian folklore.

It was in this context that Igor Stravinsky composed his first three ballets: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913). These ballets follow a very clear compositional development, starting with a piece still based in the traditions of the Russian school (with Rimsky-Korsakov as inspiration), passing through huge advances in harmonic language and culminating in the scandal that marked Stravinsky as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.

Petrushka is a story within a story. It is about how we, as humans, find purpose for existing. Through the loves and jealousies of three puppets, the narrative is filled with adventure, evocative colours, smells and very complex archetypal entities (drawn from the commedia del’ arte of 16th century Italy) that brings to these ‘scènes burlesques’ a universal appeal.

To tell this story, Stravinsky created a whole new approach to the role of the orchestra in ballet music. Following Diaghilev’s idea of having the ballet (and not the opera) as a form of ‘complete work of art’, Stravinsky gives the orchestra a leading role as one more character in the plot. Instead of being only a music translation of the action, the orchestra acts as a commentator of what is going on on the stage.

Another great innovation that the composer brings to the score is the speculation in the field of harmony. To create the magic world of Petrushka, Stravinsky allies the vibrant rhythms of folkloric Russian music to new harmonic textures and colours. If we can establish a parallel between the music of Claude Debussy and the paintings of Claude Monet, then I would say that the music of Petrushka is very close to the colours of Marc Chagall.

To mark the appearance of the main character, Stravinsky even elaborated a bitonal chord, nowadays known as the ‘Petrushka chord’, which is basically a C major chord and an F-sharp major chord played simultaneously. This duality makes reference to Petrushka being both puppet and human, and as Stravinsky described himself: “as the personification of the spiritual and suffering side of humanity”.

I just can’t wait to bring the puppets to life with the collaboration of the ANAM Orchestra.

See Eduardo Strausser conduct the ANAM Orchestra in Petrushka in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on Saturday 7 September 7.30pm. Click here to find out more.

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