Stravinsky had never intended to cause offence, and was genuinely hurt by his compatriots’ rejection. From the first, Petrushka had been conceived as a lovingly nostalgic tribute to an emblem of ‘old Russia’ – the Shrovetide fairs, with their puppet shows, dancing bears and pantomimes – which had vanished by the early 1900s. Alexandre Benois, who conceived the scenario and much of the stage design, jumped at the chance to revisit his childhood experiences, describing Petrushka enthusiastically as a ‘symphony of the street’. There was also more than a little nostalgia in Stravinsky’s colourful borrowings from some of the most popular Russian songs of his own youth. The character of Petrushka himself in Benois’s scenario, though, was a transformation of the cheeky, abusive hero of the Russian fairground into a tragic Pierrot. Benois conflated the puppets Petrushka and the Blackamoor with the love- triangle of Harlequin, Columbine and Pierrot. As such, Stravinsky’s Petrushka is both a vivid celebration of Russian ‘street’ culture, and a serious drama: the tragic tale of a puppet brutally treated by the Magician, rejected by the Ballerina and finally killed by the Moor.
The symbolism was not lost on contemporary audiences. When Diaghilev toured the ballet throughout America in 1916, a St Louis critic mused ‘Was the original Petrushka a symbol of the Russian people in the hands of their rulers?’ Edith Sitwell, in her essay on the Russian ballet, saw Petrushka as a pitiful metaphor for the human condition, and Benois himself regarded his puppet hero as the ‘personification of the spiritual and suffering side of humanity’.
The First Tableau opens on the Shrovetide Fair: an organ grinder plays two tunes, the second of which (accompanied by the triangle) is Spencer’s song La jambe en bois. A dramatic drum-roll signals the appearance of the Magician and his puppets. As he plays his flute, the three little figures emerge from the showbooth; three touches with the flute brings them to life and they dance together in a Russian Dance. The show ends; the curtain falls, and the Second Tableau opens on Petrushka’s cell, into which the puppet is abruptly
kicked. The rising clarinet arpeggio figure – Petrushka’s signature motif – gives way to a melancholy bassoon solo, and then an outburst of anger and frustration. After a while, the Ballerina enters Petrushka’s room, but becomes alarmed by his strange behaviour and leaves. Petrushka, enraged and in despair, flings himself through the paper walls of his cell. The Third Tableau is set in the Moor’s cell, where he is soon joined by the Ballerina, and they waltz together awkwardly. The muted sound of Petrushka’s motif tells them that he is jealously listening at the door. A scuffle breaks out and the Moor ejects Petrushka from the room. Back in the hurly-burly of the fairground, the Fourth Tableau presents a series of dances: first come the Nursemaids; next, a dancing bear and a peasant playing his dudka; a merchant plays the accordion; coachmen and stable boys dance a heavy two-step. A group of mummers perform a short pantomime and dance, joined by the crowd. As they dance, little cries are heard from the showbooth. The dance stops suddenly as Petrushka dashes out, pursued by the Moor, who kills him with his sabre. A crowd gathers around him as he dies. The Magician picks up his corpse and begins to drag it towards the showbooth, when Petrushka’s ghost suddenly appears over his head, thumbing his nose at him and shaking his fist. Terrified, the Magician drops the puppet and hurries away.
Programme note © Pauline Fairclough
Pauline Fairclough is lecturer in music at the University of Bristol. She has published articles on Shostakovich and Soviet music, and is co-editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich.