Stravinsky: Petrushka (1911 version)

Igor Stavinsky (1882-1971)
Petrushka (1911 version)

Scene 1: The Shrove-tide fair
Scene 2: Petrushka’s cell
Scene 3: The Moor’s cell
Scene 4: The Shrove-tide fair (towards evening)

The Russian puppet-show Petrushka was a familiar fixture at the fairs of Stravinsky’s childhood. It was these he had in mind when he sketched an idea for a piece for piano and orchestra in 1910, in between his ballet The Firebird, and the next production he was due to write for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, The Rite of Spring.

Like many ancient national traditions, the show is a nineteenth century import. Petrushka himself is Russia's version of Mr Punch. The plot is essentially the same: the protagonist has a succession of confrontations with authority figures, all of whom he whacks with a large stick. Eventually he is tried and executed for murder, and goes to Hell. Diaghilev was taken by the music, and the idea of a production based around the carnivals, and asked Stravinsky to rework it as a ballet.

Anyone familiar with Stravinsky’s music will probably now be scratching their head, as the above plot bears very little resemblance to anything in the ballet. In fact, Stravinsky voiced the concern early on that librettist Alexandre Benois’s scenario for Petrushka contained very little Petrushka. What Benois (12 years older than Stravinsky) remembered most vividly from the carnivals of his youth were the Harlequinades – plays based on characters from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. Thus Petrushka, the Moor and the Ballerina are in character closer to Pierrot, Harlequin and Columbine than what Stravinsky remembered from his youth. The closest Petrushka comes to his traditional demeanour is in the second scene in his cell (which derives from Stravinsky’s initial sketches) and in the closing pages where Petrushka’s ghost appears – which may raise the question, is the final apparition a ghost, or the real Petrushka? This is only one element of a disturbing undercurrent of the ballet: puppets behave like people; people behave like puppets; and the audience, which finds itself viewing events from the perspective of both as well as its own, may wonder where it fits into the scheme of things.

The combination of Stravinsky’s music, the exotic setting of the Russian carnivals and the flamboyant production values of the Ballets Russes added up to an instant hit. Not everyone was pleased with the result: many Russian critics condemned Stravinsky for his stylistic experiments and appropriation of folk materials. They saw it as a debasement of the legacy of Rimsky-Korsakov. This is a curious reaction given that Stravinsky’s veneration of his teacher is written in every note, sometimes to a plagiaristic degree.

When Stravinsky emigrated to America in the 1940s, he rewrote and rescored a number of his early works, principally to be able to copyright them under US law, but in some cases the changes were quite radical. The latter incarnation of Petrushka is largely unchanged in its music, but the orchestration is radically altered: by slimming down his forces, Stravinsky gave the work a new and lucrative life as a concert work. However, when he came to re-record the ballet towards the end of his life, he performed Petrushka in its original garb: more extravagant and theatrical than its leaner, concert-hall oriented revision.


The curtain opens on the eve of the St. Petersburg Shrovetide fair, sometime in the 1830s. – we hear the cries of the sideshow barkers drumming up audiences and street songs sung by drunken revellers. A barrel organist accompanies himself on the cornet (a rather rude song about the actress Sandra Bernhardt that Stravinsky had heard on a barrel organ while staying in Beaulieu on the French Riviera) while a dancer joins in. At the other side of the stage, another dancer performs to a music-box.

Two drummers appear in front of a little theatre and attract the crowd’s attention. The Charlatan, an old conjuror, appears from behind the curtain. He plays his flute, and the curtain rises to reveal three puppets: Petrushka, the Ballerina and the Moor. The Charlatan brings them to life by touching them with his flute, and they dance.

Petrushka is thrown into his cell and the door is locked behind him. The puppets have been filled with human emotions by the Charlatan’s magic, and Petrushka most of all. He curses the Charlatan for imprisoning him, and suffers at the knowledge of his own ugliness. The Ballerina enters, and he attempts to woo her. But she is terrified and runs away. He flings himself at the wall in frustration.

In contrast, the Moor is vain and stupid. The Ballerina finds him attractive, however, and uses every trick in her book to seduce him. Just as she succeeds, Petrushka bursts in, mad with jealousy. The Moor throws him out.

Outside, it is now evening, and the carnival is in full swing. The wet-nurses dance. A peasant with a bear enters, and the crowd scatters. A merchant enters, with two girls on his arm. He throws bank-notes into the crowd as the girls dance to an accordion. The coachmen dance, joined by the wet-nurses. A group of mummers burst in, and their leader, dressed as the Devil, provokes the crowd into dancing with him.

The revels are interrupted by a commotion. Petrushka runs out of the theatre pursued by the Moor, who pulls out his sabre and strikes Petrushka down. The crowd falls silent in horror.

The Charlatan arrives. He picks up Petrushka and shakes him. Seeing that the corpse is only a puppet, the crowd disperse. As the Charlatan pulls the body back to the theatre, he looks up and sees Petrushka’s ghost, threatening and mocking him and everyone he has fooled.

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