Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Pulcinella Suite
Overture: Sinfonia
Serenata
Scherzino – Allegro – Andantino
Tarantella
Toccata
Gavotta – Variation I &II
Vivo
Minuetto – Finale

Stravinsky’s early music was essentially Russian in inspiration but around 1920, he moved onto neo-classicism, a style inspired by the eighteenth century. It was a smart move that resulted in the establishment of his international reputation.

Neo-classicists were generally interested in combining the forms and structure of the 18th century with their own stylistic and harmonic ideas. Brahms was a pioneer in this field and relied heavily on traditional forms to create the framework up which he could layout his ideas. Other composers gave the style a go, of which Tchaikovksy’s Rococo Variations and Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony are fine examples.

The music for Pulcinella is based on excerpts from operas by Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-1736) and parts of instrumental works by other contemporary composers. Diaghilev, the ballet impresario responsible for commissioning The Firebird and Petrushka, had unearthed the music in the Naples Conservatory with the intention of enticing Stravinsky back into the Ballet Russes family while his score for The Wedding was being prepared. Originally, Diaghilev was anticipating a small suite of pieces but Stravinsky was soon taken with the material and came up with a full score for chamber orchestra and three singers.

Stravinsky makes the music his own by spicing up the 18th-century harmony and combining instruments to create new timbres. Prominent solo passages are given to the flute, oboe and trumpet. He also got excellent mileage out of his work and created Suite Italienne as well as the Pulcinella Suite from the full ballet score.

The story of Pulcinella (an Italian version of Punch & Judy) comes straight from the Commedia dell’arte tradition of the 17th century. The episodes depicted in the ballet are delightfully convoluted and have to do with Pulcinella’s troubles in love.

He meets two girls, dances with one and then discards her to dance with the other. Pulcinella’s girlfriend is enraged by this behaviour but they make up in a duet.

All girls are attracted to Pulcinella’s magnetic charm, which, naturally, enrages their lovers, who plot to kill him. They seem to have succeeded until a magician appears to revive the corpse.

In the end, the corpse was not Pulcinella at all but rather his friend Fourbo who impersonated him and feigned death.

The magician reveals himself to be Pulcinella, who then promptly settles the marriages of the enraged lovers and marries his girlfriend. Fourbo assumes the guise of the magician.

-Fin

The ballet was premiered on 15th May, 1920 and was heralded as the restoration of Russian ballet to its former glory. With sets by Picasso and choreography by Léonide Massinee, it was a true masterpiece, meaning it excelled in all areas. Some critics challenged the ethics of Stravinsky’s liberal appropriation of the original works but even they were not immune to the infectious wit and charm of the final production. Critic Reynaldo Hahn, a sceptic, was forced to admit that, “M. Stravinsky has never given proof of greater talent than in Pulcinella, nor of a surer taste in audacity.”

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