Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite
Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite
program notes by Chris Myers
Copyright © 2015 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, strings
III. Scherzino – Allegretto – Andantino
VI. Gavotta (con due variazioni)
VIII. Minuetto – Finale
Composed 1920. First performance: May 15, 1920. Paris Opera, conducted by Ernest Ansermet.
With his company, the Ballets Russes, on tour in the United States, the impressario Sergei Diaghilev spent November 1916 browsing through old music in Italian libraries with choreographer Léonide Massine. When Massine suggested doing a ballet on the Pulcinella stories from the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition, Diaghilev agreed, and the two selected a handful of pieces by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (or what everyone assumed were pieces by Pergolesi… several other composers managed to sneak into the collection). Diaghilev originally wanted Manuel de Falla to orchestrate the music, but this fell through, and Igor Stravinsky received the commission at the last minute, in the autumn of 1919.
According to Stravinsky, Diaghilev expected nothing more than a “stylish orchestration.” The impressario told Massine that Stravinsky was scoring the ballet for a large orchestra “with harps”. The score Stravinsky presented, however, was for a small orchestra and a trio of singers, and it was not so much stylish as stylized.
The changes Stravinsky made were significant but not fundamental, with few major structural alterations to the music. Stravinsky’s real mark was in his highly idiosyncratic orchestration. The composer explained:
Musical “effects” are usually obtained by the juxtaposition of nuances; a piano following a forte produces an “effect.” But that is the conventional, accepted thing.
I have tried to achieve an equal dynamism by juxtaposing the timbres of the instruments which are the very foundation of the sound material. A color only has value in relation to the other colors which are placed next to it. Red has no value itself. It only acquires it through its proximity to another red or a green, for example. And that is what I have wanted to do in music, and what I look for first of all is the quality of the sound.
I also look for truth in a disequilibrium of instruments, which is the opposite of the thing done in what is known as chamber music, whose whole basis is an agreed balance between the various instruments.
This effect can be heard in the seventh movement of the suite, when the melody appears in a duet between the trombone and solo contrabass, both marked fortissimo. It is clearly impossible for a contrabass to balance the sound of a trombone playing at such a high dynamic. This “disequilibrium” is emphasized when the solo contrabass plays without the trombone in an echo four measures later.
Where Stravinsky alters harmonies and other structural features, it is primarily through manipulation of existing elements in the work rather than insertion of new material. The most dramatic example occurs when Stravinsky orchestrates a trio sonata by Domenico Gallo in the last movement. Under the basic melody, Stravinsky has added insistent tonic chords in an ostinato, shifting in the penultimate bar to a strange dominant chord containing every note but E and B. The F of this chord resolves to an E in the final chord, providing a sense of resolution. However, B, the leading tone, is oddly absent throughout. This gives the ending of Pulcinella a subtly Russian tone, as though the eighteenth-century Italian music were played with a twentieth-century Russian accent— “beady Scythian eyes seem to glint from behind the mask of European urbanity,” as Richard Taruskin commented.
However, this change is the most drastic in the work, and it occurs at the very end. A look at the piece as a whole reveals that Stravinsky only gradually makes his presence felt. At the beginning, there is little hint that this is anything but a straightforward orchestration of an eighteenth-century piece. As the music progresses, hints of Stravinsky begin to appear. The alterations become increasingly obvious until, by the time we reach the trombone and contrabass duet mentioned earlier, Stravinsky’s hand is blindingly obvious.
Just as Massine performed in a mask stylized to recall the costumes of commedia dell’arte performers, Stravinsky wears a musical mask while orchestrating the music. Both are full-blooded twentieth-century Russians dressing as eighteenth-century Italians for the evening. Though perfectly capable of disguising themselves, neither can resist the urge to allow his own personality to peek out.
The score for Pulcinella was something new— not an original composition, but more than just an arrangement. This was far more than Diaghilev had expected from Stravinsky, who recalled:
Diaghilev hadn’t even considered the possibility of such a thing. A stylish orchestration was what Diaghilev wanted, and nothing more, and my music so shocked him that he went about for a long time with a look that suggested The Offended Eighteenth Century. In fact, however, the remarkable thing about Pulcinella is not how much but how little has been added or changed.
Positive reviews expressed delight in the novel orchestration, while negative ones tended to proceed from a belief that Stravinsky had vandalized Pergolesi’s music. Constant Lambert commented that he was “like a child delighted with a book of eighteenth-century engravings, yet not so impressed that it has any twinges of conscience about reddening the noses, or adding moustaches and beards in thick black pencil.”
Pulcinella signaled a shift in focus for the Ballets Russes. The company had always specialized in “space travel,” bringing the audience to Persia, Russia, India, and other exotic places. Audiences continued to applaud these works, but Diaghilev knew he needed to be one step ahead. Unfortunately, there were few new places to travel.
In Pulcinella, he found the answer. If space travel no longer accomplished the goal, why not try “time travel”? Stravinsky’s score, Picasso’s scenery, and Massine’s choreography forced the audience to see the eighteenth century through a twentieth-century lens. With this ballet, Diaghilev sent artists with tools of the present into the past to create their work. Stravinsky, at least, was pleased with the result:
Pulcinella is one of those productions— and they are rare— where everything harmonizes, where all the elements— subject, music, dancing, and artistic setting— form a coherent and homogeneous whole.
This piece marked the end of Stravinsky’s “Russian” period. He referred to Pulcinella as “my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course— the first of many love affairs in that direction— but it was a look in the mirror, too.” The neoclassicism created in Pulcinella proved to be one of the most important artistic movements of the twentieth century, with effects that continue to resound today.