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'Petrushka': Stravinsky's Opaque Reality

The music Stravinsky wrote for the ballet <em>Petrushka</em> is layered with ideas of the real and the artificial.
Wikimedia Commons
The music Stravinsky wrote for the ballet Petrushka is layered with ideas of the real and the artificial.

One hundred years ago, in May 1909, Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev launched a dance troupe that changed classical ballet forever, and at the same time inspired some of the 20th century's greatest music.

With a talented troupe, including dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and choreographer Mikhail Fokin, Diaghilev mounted a string of innovative hits, including three major ballets with music by an up-and-comer named Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and 1913's riot-inducing Rite of Spring.

Composer and commentator Rob Kapilow has a soft spot in his heart for Stravinsky. He says the reason he became interested in conducting and composing is due to Petrushka, and it all happened on his very first day at the Yale School of Music.

"I was a violinist in the orchestra, and the very first piece we played at the very first rehearsal was Petrushka, and I was just transported," Kapilow says. "I was never in the midst of so much extraordinary sound, getting so completely lost rhythmically. I don't think I played more than three notes right. But this is what first transfixed me about orchestras."

Layers Of Unreality

Kapilow says that Stravinsky enjoyed setting up tricky composing tasks for himself, and for Petrushka (the story of puppets at a local carnival who seem to possess real lives of their own), it's all about creating unreal layers, making them appear and disappear at will. A world, Kapilow says, which is on one hand artificial and on the other completely real.

"He starts off by creating a musical strand of just four notes that contain both the melody and the harmony," Kapilow says. "The notes happen slow, fast, on various beats. Once you're restricted to those four notes, anything works."

The second layer, high in the cellos, adds two new notes.

"This layer has its own unreality," Kapilow says. Stravinsky adds two more dissonant notes on top, and then a third layer, low in the bass, and a final layer that consists of confusing rhythms, as if a different scene of the carnival is coming into view.

"He's made up an artificial universe — dissonance, evil, good, balance — and everything has its own line. In highlighted form, it's perfect for a ballet," Kapilow says. You always know where you are by the sounds of the layers.

These are the essential tools that Stravinsky employs to construct the story of Petrushka, the little puppet that leaves the audience wondering what is real and what isn't.

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