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 2

27 April 2012

Read Part 1


A view of Théâtre du Châtelet today (with Tour Saint-Jacques in the background), where Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka received its première on 13 June 1911, conducted by Pierre Monteux.


“C'est enfantin et sauvage” — It is child-like and savage.  That is what Claude Debussy had written to the Swiss musicologist Robert Godet regarding Igor Stravinsky's Petrushka following its première in 1911. Compare this noteworthy observation with Stravinsky's statement made — almost to the day — fifty years later:  “My music is best understood by children and animals.”

After the successful première of L'oiseau de feu (The Firebird) in June 1910, and in order to recharge himself before starting in earnest on Le sacre du printemps — also commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev — Stravinsky decided to write a concert piece for piano and orchestra.  When Diaghilev visited the composer in Lausanne, Switzerland, and heard him perform the work-in-progress at the piano, he declared that it must be danced.  In a letter to the artist Alexandre Benois (1870-1928), Diaghilev wrote, “It is a work of such genius that one cannot contemplate anything beyond it.”

Stravinsky was thus commissioned for 1,000 rubles to shape this new work into what would become the ballet Petrushka, based, in his own words, on “the immortal and unhappy hero of every fair in all countries.” Benois was to design the sets and costumes and Vaslav Nijinsky would perform in the title role for the première.


Igor Stravinsky with Vaslav Nijinsky as Petruchka, 1911.

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


The ballet’s four scenes form a palindrome of sorts.  In the first tableau, people are milling around in a square in St. Petersburg during Maslenitza (“Butter week,” during which the Shrovetide fair takes place).  Stravinsky evokes the festive scene through the use of several Russian folk songs, including one from the province of Smolensk that is performed at Easter, Dalalyn, Dalalyn (“Song of the Volochobniki").  These folk songs occur in the midst of a throng of trills, tremolos, and glissandi, with everything ultimately enveloped in the orchestra’s immense garmoshka, or accordion, sound.

Cut and pasted in, with rapidly changing meters and textures, are street vendors’ cries, the strains of an organ grinder and a music box while two girls dance, and the sound of merry-makers.  Soon the curtain of a theater stall rises to reveal three puppets:  Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Moor.

The showman brings the puppets to life with his flute, and they delight and astound everyone by leaping off the stage to dance in the square, accompanied by what Diaghilev described to Benois as a “parade of Russian music.”  One identifiable Russian folk song, St. John’s Eve Song (from the village of Bashevskaaia in the county of Totemsk) is now characterized.  The score at this point was described by Benois as “music in which infectious, diabolical recklessness alternated with strange digressions into tenderness.”


The sets and costumes for the première of Petrushka were designed by Alexandre Benois, who also wrote the libretto with Stravinsky. This is a sketch for one of his set designs.

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


Most of the material that Stravinsky was initially composing as a concert piece for piano and orchestra (i.e., “Petrushka’s Shriek”) forms the basis of the second tableau.  The action takes place in Petrushka’s cell, into which the puppet is summarily kicked by the showman as the curtain rises.  Now we hear for the first time a curious harmony in which a chord from one key is superimposed upon that of another, distant key; because of its pervasive use in the ballet, this has come to be called the ‘Petrushka chord’ (which we’ll examine in Part 3 of this entry).  When the Ballerina enters, Petrushka falls in love with her; however, she flees and slams the door because she finds him ugly and grotesque.  Petrushka falls into despair.

Then, in the third tableau, the Ballerina enters the Moor’s cell and she falls in love with him.  The Ballerina’s cheesy music in 3/4 meter, for which Stravinsky adapted two Joseph Lanner waltzes, and to which she dances with a cornet in one hand, is at variance with the Moor’s boorish dance in 2/4 meter.  Shortly, in a fit of jealousy, Petrushka bursts in, causing the Ballerina to faint.  But the Moor throws Petrushka out.


Tamara Karsavina danced in the role of the Ballerina for the première of Petrushka.  She said, “It was interesting to watch [Stravinsky] at the piano.  His body seemed to vibrate with his own rhythm; punctuating staccatos with his head, he made the pattern of his music forcibly clear to me, more so than the counting of bars would have done.”

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


For the fourth tableau we return to the fair in St. Petersburg’s square.  It is now evening.  The “Song of the Volochebniki,” heard in the first tableau, returns.  Also rendered, during the Dance of the Nursemaids, is another Russian folk song, Vdol’ po piterskoy ("Along the Road to Piter").  Soon, the celebration features a string of characters, including a peasant with a dancing bear, a group of gypsies, coachmen and stable boys dancing the kazachok (kicking dance) and presiatka (heel dance), masqueraders, and eventually the rest of the crowd joining in, all accompanied by yet more Russian folk songs.  These include Akh vy sieni, moi sieni ("Oh you doorway": this is one of the songs sung in Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace; in fact, Stravinsky had received news of the author’s death while he was composing Petrushka) and A sneg tayet ("O, snow now thaws": from the county of Tombosk).

Suddenly, the Moor begins chasing Petrushka through the crowd in the square.  He strikes the sad puppet with his scimitar and Petrushka falls, his skull broken.  Before long the showman picks up Petrushka and convinces the crowd that it is only a puppet, but as he walks back to the stage, he sees the ghost of Petrushka, ever the prankster, sitting on the roof of the theater and jeering.

As Stravinsky explained in his memoir, “His gesture is not one of triumph or protest, as is so often said, but a nose-thumbing addressed to the audience.”

Next:  the ‘Petrushka chord’.

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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