The Ballets Russes and Petrushka
by Nina Pinzarrone
The great modernist composer Igor Stravinsky first intended Petrushka as a concert piece for piano and orchestra. At Serge Diaghilev’s urging, he instead wrote music and (with Alexandre Benois) libretto for a one-act dance drama in four “tableaux” portraying traditional Russian puppet theater. The ballet, choreographed by Michel Fokine, premiered on June 13, 1911, during the Ballets Russes’ third Paris season. Fokine gave Stravinsky compositional freedom, never specifying a dance’s style, meter, or number of bars. The resulting score was electrifying—but difficult for the dancers to count.
The Coachmen’s Dance (Tableau 4) and the Russian Dance (Tableau 1) are two selections that keep a regular, easy-to-count rhythm. Another is the trumpet-solo Dance of the Ballerina (Tableau 3), a great choice for creative movement class. It opens with a drum roll, maintains 2/4 meter and an upbeat, and, at the end, sounds like a collapse to the floor. You can find good renditions of the latter on YouTube, by David Bilger, Gábor Tarkövi, and Philip Smith.
Stravinsky’s innovations in Petrushka include:
- drum rolls as scene transitions.
- the dissonant Petrushka chord, Petrushka’s leitmotif. Two arpeggiated major chords a tritone apart (C major and F# major) are played simultaneously.
- borrowing—and altering—folk and popular tunes. Examples: “Song of the Volochebniki” (Tableau 1); “Ia vechor moloda” (Nursemaids), “Akh vy sieni, moi sieni” (Groomsmen), and “Ia na gorkku shla” (Coachmen) (Tableau 4).
- collage technique, or juxtaposing contrasting melodies and rhythms. Examples: the end of the Nursemaids/Groomsmen dance (Tableau 4) splices together “Ia vechor moloda” and “Akh vy sieni, moi sieni”; during the Waltz of the Ballerina and Moor (Tableau 3), the waltz from Joseph Lanner’s Die Schonbrunner, op. 200, and the Moor’s theme are played simultaneously.
Nina Pinzarrone, pianist at San Francisco Ballet since 1992, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Illinois and has recorded nine CDs for ballet class.