A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Stravinsky and Diaghilev Part 1

20 April 2012

“My music is best understood by children and animals.”

— Igor Stravinsky in The Observer (UK), Oct 8, 1961


In an earlier blog entry, we discussed composer Frédéric Chopin and poet Adam Mickiewicz, both Polish expatriates living in Paris during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

Another well-known composer who had lived in Paris for part of his life is Igor Stravinsky.  Stravinsky and Chopin had a few other things in common as well:  1) both had Slavic ancestry, 2) sadly, both suffered from tuberculosis (Chopin died at age 39 from the disease, while Stravinsky, even though he spent five months in a Geneva sanatorium and his wife and daughter died from the disease, had survived and lived to be almost 90), and 3) both composed at the piano — however, most of Chopin’s music remained in that medium, while many of the pieces that Stravinsky worked out at the piano continued to grow, some of his most famous having been scored for large forces.  These include the ballets Petrushka, which celebrated its one-hundredth anniversary last year (2011) and Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), which will celebrate its one-hundredth anniversary next year (2013).  Both works are deserving of our attention.


Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky in 1903

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Born in 1882 at Oranienbaum, near St Petersburg, Russia, and growing up in the latter city where his father was a bass singer with the Imperial Opera, Stravinsky initially studied law.  But by the age of 20, manuscript paper replaced legal pads when he began studying music with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908).  Rimsky-Korsakov, in turn, was influenced by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), and we can hear how Berlioz’ ideas carried through into Stravinsky’s music, especially in his orchestration, exerting a French influence before Stravinsky had ever thought about moving to Paris.

Stravinsky was 28 when the impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872–1929) heard his works in St. Petersburg in 1910 and commissioned a ballet from him (after trying three or four other composers).  L'oiseau de feu (The Firebird) was the result.


Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev in 1917

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Diaghilev had been a hit in Paris since 1906 — his Ballets russes were justifiably renowned.  In addition, Diaghilev was a veritable artistic-genius magnet:  many of the foremost composers, choreographers, and artists of the day collaborated with him.

Under Diaghilev’s direction, Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950) choreographed Claude Debussy’s ballets Jeux and l’Après-midi d’un Faune, the latter ballet’s set being designed by the Symbolist painter Odilon Redon.  Nijinsky also choreographed Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis and Chloé.  (When the dancers found a particular passage difficult to negotiate because it was in 5/4 time, Nijinsky had the dancers sing “Ser - ge - Dia - ghi - lev, Ser - ge - Dia - ghi - lev,” as they danced.)

Other luminaries that Diaghilev had attracted in collaboration with the Ballets russes were Henri Matisse, who designed the sets for Stravinsky’s Le chant du rossignol, and Apollon musagète, George Balanchine, who choreographed the latter ballet, and Coco Chanel, who designed the costumes.  In addition, there were the composers Darius Milhaud, Modeste Moussorgski, Francis Poulenc, Sergei Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Richard Strauss — the artists Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, André Derain, and Maurice Utrillo — and the writers Guillaume Apollinaire and André Gide.  Some of Diaghilev’s posters were designed by Jean Cocteau.

Pablo Picasso designed the sets for Erik Satie’s Parade, the first ballet to include cubist sets, as well as for Stravinsky’s Pulcinella.


Here is a sketch that Pablo Picasso had made of Stravinsky when they were working together on Pulcinella in 1920.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Soon after the success of L'oiseau de feu, Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to compose another ballet.  Stravinsky had begun to work on Le sacre du printemps, but stopped in order to compose Petrushka.  Ultimately, these three ballets, all of which draw on Stravinsky’s Russian heritage, brought him to the attention of the world.

Petrushka — a diminutive of Pyotr, or Peter — is one of the main characters in Russian puppet theater and has been around since the early 1700s.  In rayok, as the form is called, hand puppets, or occasionally marionettes, were used.  Petrushka would wear a red caftan and a red kolpak, a pointy hat with a tuft.  He was a prankster with a large, hooked nose.

But the Petrushka character has even earlier beginnings — in the Commedia dell’Arte.  This dramatic, improvisatory form originated in Italy around 1400, came to be called by the name we know today by the mid-sixteenth century, and continued well into the eighteenth century.  The actors, who performed outdoors on makeshift stages, wore leather masks, costumes, and hats with plumes.  Their masks covered half the face and usually had large noses, which was not only amusing, but helped to amplify the voice.

Among the stock characters from the Commedia dell’Arte are Pantalone, a hunch-backed, miserly Venetian merchant; il Dottore, an arrogant academician; Arlecchino (Harlequin), a zanni, or mischievous servant, from Bergamo (our word ‘zany’ comes from this term, which is the Venetian form of the name Gianni); Colombina (sometimes Arlecchina), also a servant and Arlecchino's mistress; and Pedrolino, another zanni, or comic servant.


Pedrolino and il Dottore in a 1621 woodcut

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Another character, Pulcinella, is sneaky but pretends to be stupid.  His name (from the Latin pullus gallinaceus) derives from his beak-like nose, and this character is featured in another Stravinsky ballet — also eponymous, and mentioned above.


This drawing of Pulcinella is from Maurice Sand’s Masques et bouffons (comédie italienne), a study of Commedia dell'Arte published in Paris in 1860.  Maurice Sand (1823-1889) was the son of Baron Casimir Dudevant and his wife, author Aurore Dupin (pseudonym George Sand), the latter associated with composer Frédéric Chopin.  Maurice Sand studied under the painter Eugène Delacroix and, like his mother, wrote many novels.  George Sand wrote the preface to this work.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Some of these Commedia dell’Arte characters, which can be traced back to the medieval jongleurs or even to ancient Roman comedies, have gone on to influence the playwrights William Shakespeare, Molière, and Carlo Goldoni, as well as the opera buffa plots of Rossini and Verdi.

The Russian Petrushka is based on the Italian Pulcinella character, who also turns up in France as Polichinelle and in England as Punch of Punch and Judy fame.  That name gave rise to the expression “pleased as Punch.”


Polichinelle, the French version of Pulcinella, c. 1650

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


A slight detour here, but one of musical and artistic significance.  Some other characters that may be hybrids or derivatives of those above include Pagliaccio, Peppe Nappa, Petruccio, and Pierrot.  Pierrot, a sad clown who pines after Columbine, and whose name in French, like Pedrolino in Italian, is a diminutive of Peter, is possibly derived from either Pedrolino or Pulcinella.

The title of Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque (1890, rev. 1905) concerns the fact that Pierrot’s traditional birthplace was Bergamo, in northern Italy, where the dialect of the local residents apparently led others to believe that the bergamaschi were slightly crazy, being affected by the moon. (Our word ‘lunatic’ is derived from this presumed influence of the moon).  Clair de Lune, a movement from this suite, is one of Debussy’s most enduring pieces.

Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912), based on the Belgian Symbolist poet Albert Giraud's Pierrot lunaire: Rondels bergamasques (1884), features this same character.  Pierrot has also been represented in the visual arts by Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Juan Gris, and is even the principal source for Marcel Marceau's mimed character Bip.


Pierrot, by the Danish illustrator Hans Peter Hansen, 1846

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Charles Deburau (1829–1873), French mime, as Pierrot; photograph by Nadar, c. 1858,  Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}



Now that we’ve had a look at the diverse background of Stravinsky’s Petrushka which had its one-hundredth birthday last year — next we’ll examine that work along with Le sacre du printemps — which turns 100 in 2013.


The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (France)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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