In the summer of 1910, after the glamorous premiere of The Firebird, Stravinsky decided to take a short break at the seaside, and then he and his family went to Switzerland. “I wanted to entertain myself by writing an orchestral work in which the piano would play a predominant role,” he recalled. – As I composed this music, before my eyes was the image of a puppet on strings suddenly tearing its strings, who with his stunts and diabolical arpeggios drives the orchestra out of patience, and the orchestra in turn responds with menacing fanfares. A brawl ensues, which eventually ends with the exhausted dancer’s drawn-out lament. After finishing this strange excerpt, I walked for hours along the shore of Lake Geneva, trying to find a title that could express in just one word the character of my music, and therefore the image of my character. And then, at one point, I suddenly jumped for joy. “Petrushka”! The eternal and unhappy hero of all fairs, of all countries! Just what I needed, and I found a name for him, I found my title!”
Shortly thereafter, Stravinsky showed drafts of his new work to Sergei Diaghilev, who visited him in Clarent. On hearing the music, Diaghilev enthusiastically exclaimed, “But this is a ballet! It’s Petrushka!” Captivated by the idea of a ballet performance, Diaghilev insisted on developing it. The script was a collaborative effort between Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Russian artist, critic and set designer Alexandre Benois, who was invited to do the artwork for the new production. Unlike the usual creation of music-stage works, in which the music is set to an already created literary libretto, here everything is upside down: the libretto is invented as the work progresses by first composing some musical excerpts and then, when the team auditions them, deciding what exactly they should mean. The first two pictures of the ballet were ready that winter. On Christmas Day Stravinsky arrived in St Petersburg, where he introduced Diaghilev and Benoit to what had been written up to that point. After some interruption caused by the choreographer’s illness, the last pages of the music were completed in Rome, where he was visiting with his troupe at the time, and rehearsals began.
The premiere of Petrushka, which was attended by “the whole of Paris “, was on June 13th, 1911 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, conducted by Pierre Montier. It was very successful, and Stravinsky later recalled: ‘The success of Petrushka helped me a great deal, as it gave me absolute confidence in myself, and at the very time when I was about to begin writing The Rite of Spring.” In Russia, however, they took the new work too harshly: it seemed to them that the music was too gaudy, coarse, and saturated with “street melodies”. Only Myaskovsky, in his review, could hear “life itself” in Stravinsky’s new work and praised it highly. “This music is filled with such enthusiasm, freshness and wit, with such healthy, incorruptible fun and such unbridled skill that all the deliberate vulgarity and triviality, as well as the constant harmonic background, not only do not repel, but on the contrary – captivate even more…” – he wrote.
In April 1914, Petrushka was performed at a symphony concert in Paris under the baton of Pierre Montier. Since then, the work has permanently taken its place on the concert stage and continues to be performed in symphony concerts to this day with great success.
Here is how Stravinsky himself describes the content of his work: ‘During the merriment surrounding Shrovetide Fair, an old oriental Charlatan brings to life three puppets: Petrushka, Ballerina and the Moor, dancing frantically in front of the astonished crowd. The magician’s spell conveys to the puppets all the feelings and passions of real people. The most gifted with them is Petrushka, who suffers more than the Ballerina and the Moor. He feels painfully the cruelty of the magician, his unhappiness, his isolation from the rest of the world, and his ugly and ridiculous appearance. Petrushka seeks solace in the Ballerina’s love and thinks he finds the answer in her heart, but in reality she is only afraid of his strangeness and avoids him.
The life of the Moor, a stupid and evil but elegant personage, is the complete opposite of the life of Petrushka. Ballerina likes him and tries to charm him by all means. Finally she succeeds, but Petrushka, mad with jealousy, bursts in and interrupts the explanation in love. The Moor is enraged and chases him out.
The national rejoicing on Shrovetide Fair has reached its limit. A strolling merchant throws piles of banknotes at the crowd, court coachmen dance with costumed nursing maids; a crowd of jesters engages everyone in a wild dance. In the midst of the revelry, screams are heard from the charlatan’s theatre. The feud between the Moor and Petrushka takes an abrupt turn. The animated puppets run into the street, the Moorhits Petrushka with his sabre, and the pitiful Petrushka dies in the snow, surrounded by a crowd of merrymakers. The Charlatan, brought in by the guard, rushes to calm everyone down. From under his hands Petrushka returns to his original form – that of a puppet – and the crowd, satisfied that the crushed head is made of wood and the body is stuffed with sawdust, disperses. But for the cunning Charlatan, left alone with the puppet, there is not such an easy ending: the ghost of Petrushka appears over the theatre, threatening his tormentor, and taunting all who have believed in magic.”
Petrushka is constructed quite peculiarly. The four movements, each of which corresponds to a paragraph of the content set out, correspond to the movements of a symphony: the first is an Allegro, the second is a slow movement, the third is analogous to a symphonic scherzo, and the fourth is a finale. In 1921 Stravinsky wrote a piano appendix, Three Movements from Petrushka. In 1946 he also made a new revision of the score of Petrushka which , in his own words, he found “much more appropriate”. The two suites from the ballet were performed in the autumn of 1962 at the Bolshoi Theatre as part of Stravinsky’s tour on the occasion of his 80th birthday – after an absence of 45 years the composer returned to Russia at the invitation of the Composers’ Union.