“No other composer of this century has produced so many authentic masterpieces, each one so utterly original and yet also different from one another” (Bernstein, on Stravinsky’s Petrushka)
Stravinsky, the Lucky Procrastinator
Stravinsky, to those who know anything at all about him, is only known for one thing: The Rite of Spring. The Rite follows the story of a girl in pagan Russia who ultimately dances herself to death, which would even prompt Rihanna to ask to “stop the music.” Starting in such an awkward register on the bassoon (the infamous tune that prompted Saint-Säens to refer to himself as a baboon), its irregular meter (from 3/16, to 5/16, to 4/16, to 2/16), and the collective pounding of the instruments and primitive costumes, it gave Western Europeans the taste of an archaic - although arguably exaggerated - view into an ancestral slavic culture that fed into their collective side-eye towards the East.
But before even deciding on the clef for that work (actually written when Stravinsky was actually supposed to be composing it), he was preoccupied with a completely separate work — the story of a puppet that Leonard Bernstein, the infamous composer of West Side Story, would refer to as “awkward,” “lonely,” and “desperate.”
Overview of Petrushka
Petrushka covers the relationship between three puppets. Petrushka, our main character in the ballet, is far from a Pinocchio or a Kermit in the sense that he is absolutely miserable. Instead of coming to life through Disney fairy dust to become a real boy, he is animated through the mysterious magic of an unsettling “oriental” magician to become a puppet with feelings — the worst kind of puppet to be. To direct those feelings, he has his Mrs. Piggy, the ballerina. The ballerina, while luckily not a pig, is unluckily not in love with him. Instead, she loves the “Moor,” a racist depiction of an African king which is likely the reason that the ballet, while an incredible and striking composition, was left unperformed beyond its orchestration.
His story takes place during the Shrovetide fair, a pre-lenten festival in Russia with boisterous folk tunes and interweaving melodies. Suddenly, a drumroll commands the scene to a halt, and the magician - a man resembling the fortune-telling Zoltar machines at county fairs - pokes his head out of his booth. The audience in awe, he directs his puppets to dance. The ballerina dances gracefully, the Moor “brutishly,” and Petrushka lankily.
Tableau II and III
We get insight into the hidden lives of these characters, who are, at least to the audience, less puppet and more actual people. Petrushka, alone in his dark room, throws curses at the magician who brought him to life and confines him to what amounts to a large cubicle. The entire room is characterized by an eerie emptiness, littered with stars and paintings of distant mountains. He taps the walls of his compartment, taken by jealousy towards the Moor. For a brief moment the ballerina enters the room, but is quickly scared away because of his berserk display of movement, jumping up and down (hence why the ballet is not referred to as Pet-rizz-ka).
In the Moor’s room, Petrushka interrupts a waltz between the Moor and the ballerina. The Moor, bigger and stronger than Petrushka (think of the Hulk taking on Professor Frink from the Simpsons), chases him out of the room.
Briefly (and thankfully), the audience has time to divert their attention away from Petrushka’s lack of romantic ability (or even capacity). We return to Shrovetide, which at this point, encompasses events that can only be described as Courage the Cowardly Dog-esque. A man walks in with a dancing bear, wetmaids and gypsies begin to move in hypnotizing athleticism, and masqueraders don costumes that would give the Met Gala ideas (spanning an anthropomorphic pale giraffe, a goose-man, and a demon-troll in stockings). All of this appears to bring the festivities to their climax, until, out of nowhere, Petrushka races out of the tent, the Moor in hot pursuit, and Petrushka falls at the tip of his scimitar.
The audience, convinced that they just witnessed a murder, stand dazed (notably the policeman in the crowd also does nothing). The magician appears once again, picking up Petrushka and alleviating their fears by proving that, despite what they just saw, Petrushka is a puppet. The people walk away, and the magician, alone and left behind, is left to see a fully animated Petrushka above his starry booth.
“Man or Muppet” is essentially the throughline for the ballet. The audience is left to question the humanity of Petrushka, his desperation, the overall neglect of his feelings, and the lengths that he would go through to act out these emotions. I watched Petrushka late at night and I am not fully convinced that it is something that is possible to watch fully-conscious. The choreography is impressive to say the least, and I particularly liked the jauntiness of Petrushka. My favorite bit, however, was the music:
The Crowds: takes place during the Shrovetide fair. It is full of energy and every chord feels so exact. Borrowing from the folk tune Dance of the Volobochniki, it would bring Gatsby’s parties to their knees through the amount of activities melding together like a battered fugue — waltzes weave through folk melodies and organ boxes.
Russian Dance/Rattle: the three puppets are introduced. In the box, they seem to float around and you can literally hear Petrushka’s ragdoll dance, the Moor’s steady peacocking, and the ballerina’s floating en pointe. Unfortunately for Petrushka, it is hard to be a winner when your character’s defining trait is simply not a winner.
Dance of the Coachmen: appearing in Tableau IV, it encapsulates the mania and bustle of the fair. Horns can be heard, and the march-like rhythm doesn’t allow you to take a break from the piece in fear that you might miss out on some crucial development or maybe see the giant pale giraffe suddenly get raptured never to be seen again (which does not happen, but I wish it did).
The original ballet, while well-deserving of criticism for its depiction of Africans, was a landmark in atonal composition (even popularizing a namesake “Petrushka” chord). Stravinsky was a genius at pioneering melody and intentional rhythm to portray his story, so much so that it can exist pretty comfortably as an independent work.
“As for myself, I need music for hygienic purposes, for the health of my soul. Without music in its best sense there is chaos. For my part, music is a force which gives reason to things, a force which creates organization, which attunes things. Music probably attended the creation of the universe.” (Stravinsky in The Musical Digest)