By the Magician’s Hand: Notes on Stravinsky’s Petrushka

The following is an edited version of programme notes written for a performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka by the Trinity College of Music Symphony Orchestra, London. The performance took place at Blackheath Halls, London on 27 March, 2008, conducted by Barry Wordsworth.

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image: wikimedia commons

A traditional Punch and Judy booth, at Swanage, Dorset.
Image: wikimedia commons

According to Aristotle, we are the only creatures that laugh. The human fascination with absurdity and disaster has armed comedy throughout history. Where there is comedy, there is violence. Witness the barbarism of Mr Punch when he slaps an unfortunate companion with his wooden stick. Brutality feeds on laughter in the context of caricature.

In Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1911), the sentimental indulgences of a puppet result in a violence that is mitigated by the exaggeration and distortion of its portrayal. Set in St Petersburg in 1830, this ‘burlesque ballet in four scenes’ derives from the nineteenth-century Russian puppet-theatre, petrushka, which featured an oafish blunderer – an incarnation of the Italian Pulcinella and the English Mr Punch. Petrushka is one of three puppets brought to life by a Magician’s hand during a Shrovetide Fair, along with a Moor and a Ballerina. Petrushka is in love with the Ballerina. He escapes his cell and confronts the Moor (the Ballerina’s preferred suitor) only to receive a brutish warning. In the end, his misery concludes when the exasperated Moor chases him from his booth and issues a fatal wound to his straw-filled body.

Much has been written about Stravinsky’s aversion to emotion in music. ‘Music’ he claimed in his autobiography, ‘is essentially powerless to express anything at all’. Indeed, he played the leading role in collaborating with other artists, which suggests a need to guarantee himself a tabula rasa for fixing ideas within an abstract world of sound before they were developed through other art forms. Michel Fokine’s choreography was not developed until the score was nearly ready and Alexandre Benois’s scenario took its lead from the composer’s initial idea for ‘a sort of Konzertstück’ for piano and orchestra. Stravinsky reported that this idea came to him as ‘a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra…[which] in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts’ and predicted the outcome to be ‘a terrific noise’.

Petrushka is a puppet, whose will is variously suppressed by the Magician, the Moor and the Ballerina. He is lovesick for the Ballerina, which makes him act in ways that question the boundaries of his puppet-status. He beats a wall, for example, in his misery of unrequited love. Such irrational, human behaviour cuts a vivid silhouette out of the power of emotional expression, particularly when set against the disinterested musings of the handsome Moor. Scenario and score let us interpret Petrushka as a scapegoat for Romanticism. He is a puppet, yet he is a symbol of human feeling and subjective expression. The ugliness of the violence that develops from his frequent tendency to disturb the peace is an object of mockery. Like Mr Punch’s voice and the Futurists’ megaphone, Petrushka’s nasal cry is destructive in its noisiness. Famously, Stravinsky renders it through two instruments playing together, in different keys.

In 1947, Stravinsky revised the ballet by reducing the orchestral forces for concert performances, though he had already provided an alternative ending in 1911. In the complete ballet, Petrushka’s ghost appears above the puppet booth after he has been slaughtered. It terrifies the Magician because it suggests Petrushka is beyond any kind of control, even magic. When we experience the work in the context of a concert without the spectacle of visual narrative, we confront this Konzertstück as a purely musical skirmish. Exaggeration and distortion are conveyed by the theatre of sound. The orchestra is Stravinsky’s penned-in coterie of emotional creatures. It has its own, hand-waving Magician. Apollonian, refined and under the strict control of the conductor, the battle-show begins.

Copyright © N.G. Brown, 2008