The Russian folk puppet Petrushka

Prepared by Ken Meltzer

Igor Stravinsky

Petrushka (1947 version)

Igor Stravinsky was born in Lomonosov, Russia, on June 17, 1882, and died in New York on April 6, 1971.  The first performance of Petrushka took place at the Théâtre du Chatelet in Paris, France, on June 13, 1911, with Pierre Monteux conducting.   Approximate performance time is thirty-four minutes.

Petrushka, along with The Firebird (1910) and The Rite of Spring (1913), form the remarkable trilogy of ballets Igor Stravinsky composed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  The premiere of Stravinsky’s Petrushka took place at the Paris Théâtre du Chatelet on June 13, 1911.  The legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky interpreted the title role.  After witnessing Nijinsky’s performance, Sarah Bernhardt exclaimed: “I am afraid, I am afraid—because I have just seen the greatest actor in the world!”

While the production was generally a success, more than a few observers were taken aback by music that was at times brittle, caustic, and even grotesque.  One critic approached Diaghilev after a dress rehearsal and exclaimed: “And it was to hear this that you invited us!”  “Exactly,” was Diaghilev’s reply.

I. The Shrovetide Fair—The action of Petrushka takes place in the 1830s in Admiralty Square, St. Petersburg, during Shrovetide rejoicing.  Stravinsky’s stunning orchestration and rapidly shifting rhythms magically depict the hustle and bustle of the fair.  An organ grinder and dancing girl entertain the crowd.  Drummers announce the appearance of the Old Wizard, who charms the captivated audience.  The Old Wizard uses a flute to cast a magic spell (The Magic Trick).  The curtain rises on a tiny theater, revealing three puppets—Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Moor.  The puppets perform a vigorous Russian Dance.

II. Petrushka’s Room—Petrushka lands in his cell with a resounding crash.  Although Petrushka is a puppet, he feels human emotions, including bitterness toward the Old Wizard for his imprisonment, as well as love for the beautiful Ballerina.  Petrushka unsuccessfully tries to escape from his cell.  The Ballerina enters.  Petrushka attempts to profess his love, but the Ballerina rejects his pathetic advances.

III. The Moor’s Room—The scene changes to the Moor’s lavishly decorated cell.  The Ballerina, who is attracted by the Moor’s handsome appearance, enters his room.  The two begin their lovemaking (Waltz), interrupted by the entrance of Petrushka.  The angry Moor chases Petrushka away.

IV. The Shrovetide Fair—The scene returns to the fairground toward evening, where a series of characters come and go (Dance of the Nursemaids, Dance of the Coachmen and the Stable Boys, The Mummers).  At the height of the festivities, a cry is heard from the puppet-theater.  The Moor chases Petrushka into the crowd and kills him with his scimitar.

The police question the Old Wizard, who reminds everyone that Petrushka is but a puppet with a wooden head, and a body filled with sawdust.  Night falls, and the crowd disperses.  Alone, the Old Wizard is terrified to see the leering ghost of Petrushka on the roof of the little theater.

Alexander Glazunov

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A minor, Opus 82 (1904)

Alexander Glazunov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on August 10, 1865, and died in Paris, France, on March 21, 1936.  The first performance of the Violin Concerto took place in St. Petersburg on February 15, 1905, with Leopold Auer as soloist, and the composer conducting.  Approximate performance time is twenty-one minutes.

Alexander Glazunov was a prolific composer, whose works include numerous symphonies and independent orchestral works, ballets, choral and solo vocal compositions, and several chamber pieces.  In addition to his success as a composer, Glazunov was a highly respected teacher.  In 1899, he was appointed as a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  In 1905, he was named the Director of the Conservatory, a position he held until 1928.

One of Glazunov’s most famous and performed works is the Violin Concerto, completed in 1904.  Glazunov dedicated the Concerto to his colleague at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the great Hungarian-born violinist, Leopold Auer (1845-1930).  It appears that Auer may well have assisted Glazunov in the writing of the solo violin part for his Concerto.  Auergave the Concerto’s world premiere in St. Petersburg on February 17, 1905, with the composer on the podium.  For over a century, the Glazunov Violin Concerto has maintained an important place in the concert hall, as well as the affection of virtuosos and audiences alike.

The Glazunov Violin Concerto is in four movements, played without pause.  The first (Moderato) opens with the briefest of orchestral introductions, followed by the soloist’s introduction of the broad, flowing first principal theme, marked dolce espressivo.  Some wide-ranging flourishes by the soloist lead to his introduction of the tender second principal theme.  A playful sequence for the soloist, followed by a more introspective episode, serve as a bridge to the Concerto’s slow-tempo second movement (Andante).  The soloist plays a theme (dolce espressivo) that begins in the lower portion of the instrument’s range.  The theme is related to the one that opened the Concerto.  The Andante, and the ensuing Più animato serve as both the Concerto’s slow-tempo movement, and the development and varied recapitulation of the principal thematic material.  A lengthy solo cadenza and a sprightly passage resolve to a jaunty trumpet fanfare in 6/8 time, repeated by the soloist (Allegro).  This finale’s central theme alternates with various episodes.  High spirits predominate, as do virtuoso opportunities for the soloist, right to the Concerto’s thrilling final bars.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Suite from Swan Lake, Opus 20a (1877)

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia, on May 7, 1840, and died in St. Petersburg, Russia, on November 6, 1893.  The first performance of Swan Lake took place at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, Russia, on March 4, 1877. Approximate performance time of is twenty-six minutes.

Tchaikovsky composed his first ballet score, Swan Lake, for the Bolshoi Theater.  Although the March 4, 1877 premiere was far from an unqualified success, it was not long before Swan Lake established itself as a central part of the Russian ballet repertoire.  Today, the status of Swan Lake as one of ballet’s masterworks is unquestioned.  The tale of the tragic fate of the young lovers, Odette and Prince Siegfried, has true dramatic impact.  The music displays Tchaikovsky’s familiar gifts of unforgettable melody, rhythmic vitality, and magical instrumental colors.  The continued success in the concert hall of orchestral suites from Swan Lake, Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty is further testimony to the richness of Tchaikovsky’s conception.

This concert features the orchestral Suite from Swan Lake, as well as the ballet’s concluding Scene.

The Suite (I. Scène) opens with the haunting oboe melody associated throughout the ballet with Odette and the swans.

The story of Swan Lake takes place in Germany.  In the ballet’s first act, everyone celebrates the coming of age of Prince Siegfried.  A group of peasants entertain the Prince and his friends with a Waltz (II. Valse).  The Prince’s mother enters and tells Siegfried that he must choose a wife at a grand ball that will take place the following day.  As night falls, the Prince spies a flock of swans flying overhead.  Siegfried grabs his crossbow and rushes after the swans.

Act II takes place that night in a mysterious forest where ruins are situated on the shore of a lake.  A group of swans, led by one with a crown on its head, swims in the lake.  Siegfried arrives.  Just as the Prince draws his crossbow, the swans disappear into the ruins.  A magical light glows and Odette, wearing a white dress and a crown studded with precious stones, descends the staircase.  The beautiful young woman explains to the Prince that her stepmother, an evil sorceress, seeks to kill her.  However, Odette is protected by the crown given by her kind grandfather.  The crown’s magical powers allow Odette to transform herself and her companions into swans.  Odette further tells the Prince that she can be saved from the evil stepmother’s curse if she weds.  Odette and the Prince fall in love.  The Suite includes two selections from Act II, the sprightly Dance of the Swans (III. Dances des cygnes) and the beautiful Scene (IV. Scène) for Odette and the Prince, featuring gorgeous writing for the solo violin and cello.

Act III takes place the following day at the palace ball.  Several young women dance for Siegfried, but the Prince is unable to choose a bride.  Entertainment is provided in the form of several national dances, including a Czardas (V. Danse hongroise).  The Prince mistakes another woman for Odette.  When Odette hurries away, the Prince rushes to try to find his beloved.

The final Act returns to the setting of Act II, at nightfall.  The Prince hurries to Odette and begs for forgiveness.  Odette replies that all is over between them.  Overcome with anger, the Prince seizes the crown from Odette’s head and hurls it into the overflowing lake.  The waters rise and envelop Odette and the Prince, who are finally united in death.  The tempest subsides, and the swans reappear on the now peaceful moonlit lake (VI. Scène finale).