Recently I had a garden designer called Fran Lawton on my show at Kennet Radio and one of the pieces of music that she chose was the ballet Petrushka by the Russian Composer Stravinsky (1882-1971). It reminded me what great music Stravinsky wrote.
One of the most influential composers of the 20th Century, his three best known works are his ballets - The Rite of Spring, The Firebird and Petrushka. As a Neo-classacist, he took classical forms such as a Fugue or a Symphony and gave them a modern twist, therefore his music is more contemporary sounding than his other Russian contemporaries such as Rachmaninov. The composers big break came with The Firebird in 1910 when out of the blue when he was commissioned to compose the music because Anatoly Lyadov let down the impresario Serge Diaghilev at the last minute.
Stravinsky and his family divided their time between Switzerland and Russia, fortunately he managed to get back to Russia to collect their belongings and some manuscripts before they shut the borders at the outbreak of World War One. He couldn't and didn't go back until 1962. After the death of his wife he emigrated to the USA where he lived in Los Angeles and mixed with many of the musical elite and the last years of his life were relatively content.
Stravinsky's ballet brings together music, dance and design as one and the music is extremely descriptive. Petrushka is one of the most popular of the ballet Russes productions and remains one of the most popular ballets today. It is the story of the loves and jealousies of three puppets. The three are bought to life by a charlatan (a trickster) during the Shrovetide Fair in St Petersburg. Petrushka loves the ballerina but she rejects him because she loves the Moor. Petrushka is very angry and challenges the Moor who then kills him. As night falls Petrushka's ghost rises above the puppet theatre and shakes his fist at the Charlatan and then collapses into a second death. Done well this ballet, is colourful, amusing, macabre and dark - all apparent in the following brilliant YouTube clip "Petroushka's Room".
The recording I recommend is by the Dutch orchestra the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and here it is conducted by Riccardo Chailly. On the recording Petroushka is coupled with another of Stravinsky's ballet's Pulcinella. More on Pulicnella next time…...