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 3

4 May 2012

Read Part 1

Read Part 2


Last year witnessed centennial celebrations of Petrushka all over the world.  In Paris, the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, under the direction of Emmanuel Krivine, gave a scintillating performance of the work at Salle Pleyel on 26 May.


Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, which celebrated its one-hundredth birthday last year, is remarkable in many ways.  One salient aspect is its abundance of Russian folk song.  The musicologist Richard Taruskin, who has written much on Stravinsky’s use of folk music, claims that even more unidentified material still lurks within the score.

Not everyone was happy about Stravinsky’s handling of Russian folk tunes in Petrushka at the time.  Andrei Rimsky-Korsakov, the son of Stravinsky’s teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, wrote in a review of a performance of Petrushka in 1913 that “our Russian home-brew has been too obviously larded with French perfume.”  Another Russian composer, Alexander Glazunov, was more blunt in his opinion, pronouncing that "Petrushka is not music;” he did, however, concede that it “is excellently and skillfully orchestrated."

In spite of those views from St. Petersburg, 3,000 kilometers distant from Paris, the ballet was a success with its Parisian audience, which included author Marcel Proust, poet and diplomat Paul Claudel, actress Sarah Bernhardt, and composer Claude DebussyPetrushka is now considered one of the supreme works of the twentieth century.  Sergei Diaghilev, characteristically shrewd and perceptive in assessing new work, be it music, art, or choreography, said at the beginning: “One could see through it with one’s ears.”


Claude Debussy, shown here relaxing à la plage,  attended the première of Petrushka in 1911.

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


Petrushka is remarkable in another, deeper, sense for its particularly modern approach to so many aspects of composition.  In light of this, what is significant is the way in which the Russian folk songs come off as sounding new themselves.  They seem to grow out of Stravinsky’s ground-breaking methods . . . or is it the other way around?

In fact, Petrushka  has been called a “dictionary” of twentieth-century practices, employing not only diatonic (i.e., major/minor) scales, but pentatonic scales, whole-tone scales, chromaticism (the alteration of diatonic scale members), pandiatonicism (which eliminates tonal function from a diatonic scale), modal harmony, chord clusters, bitonality (the simultaneous use of two keys), and octatonicism (the use of a synthetic scale having eight degrees; we’ll talk about this later in connection with Le sacre du printemps).

All of which leads us to the intriguing harmony mentioned earlier, the ‘Petrushka chord’, which has been the subject of much speculation over the last century.  This harmonic aggregate is made up of two triads (three-note chords) the interval of a tri-tone apart — C major and F# major (at least, this is one explanation for the harmony, which we’ll consider now) — and is used in different ways throughout the ballet.  For example, near the beginning of the second tableau, the two triads that make up the Petrushka chord are simultaneously arpeggiated (the word arpeggio derives from the Italian word for harp — arpa — implying a strumming motion in which several pitches sound quickly in succession) by two clarinets:



At a later point in the second tableau, when Petrushka is angry about his treatment by his cruel master, the two triads that make up the Petrushka chord are played tremolando (rapidly alternating, as if trembling) on the piano:



In the fourth tableau, two piccolos whimper as Petrushka falls, having been struck by the Moor’s scimitar.



What is the effect on a listener when two triads that belong to vastly unrelated keys are sounded together?  When the set-designer Alexandre Benois had heard the music that was to become the second tableau — in which the dissonant Petrushka chord features prominently — he wrote, “I began to discern in it grief, and rage, and love, as well as the helpless despair that dominated it.”

A possible explanation for Benois’ response is that one of tonality’s fundamental rules had been shattered.

Here is why.  Music listeners in the western world for centuries had grown accustomed to tonality, a system in which hierarchical pitch relationships are established around a key center.  This scheme further includes a hierarchy of chords built on those pitches, and, built on those chords, a hierarchy of related keys that may occur over time, but not simultaneously.  The Petrushka chord, however, seems to promulgate not only two unrelated keys, but at that, simultaneously.

We should remember that, however natural it sounds to our ears, the tonal system hasn’t been around forever — or at least our awareness of its principles has not.  It was only with the introduction of polyphony (music with two or more independent parts) in the Middle Ages, and the ensuing massive exertion that this represented on the modal system during the Renaissance, that a concentrated focus on the finalis (now “tonic,” or key center) was necessitated, along with an accompanying imposition of a sort of ‘social order’ among the pitches.  Out of this greatly amplified capacity of music in multiple voices grew the system of keys that we know today as tonality.

But perhaps we should step back to take in an even broader view, because, interestingly, this new sense of perspective in music — tonality — was preceded by its revolutionary counterpart in the visual arts.

In the early 1400s, the architect Filippo Brunelleschi carried out a series of optical experiments from which he developed a mathematical theory of linear perspective — a way of showing depth in a two-dimensional painting — and soon practically every artist in Florence began to use this geometrical construct in their paintings as well.  Then, around 1435, Brunelleschi’s friend Leon Battista Alberti published a treatise on perspective, Della pittura (On Painting), and eventually, most artists in Italy were using the method.  Next, in the 1470s, Piero della Francesca enlarged on Alberti’s ideas in his treatise, De Prospectiva Pingendi, and these concepts spread throughout Europe and beyond.


Ideal City (c. 1470, National Gallery of the Marche at Urbino) demonstrates the ideals of linear perspective soon after their development.  Originally believed to have been painted by Piero della Francesca (c. 1415 –1492) — or possibly by one of several other painters — this painting has recently been discovered through  X-rays and reflectographs by a team led by scientist Maurizio Seracini to have been originally drawn by Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472), the one who stimulated the fundamental transformation in the visual arts through his treatise Della pittura. Alberti possibly also colored the work.  The two artists — Piero della Francesca and Leon Battista Alberti — may have met.

photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


In linear perspective, lines converge to one or more vanishing points on a geometrical horizon, providing depth of field cues.  But significantly, not only did the mathematical concepts of perspective help the artist to depict distance accurately, they also stimulated new techniques of composing a painting.  Consequently, these new techniques of structuring paintings produced a major shift in the visual arts during the Renaissance.

So, on the heels of this revolution in painting — linear perspective — with its hierarchical visual organization around a fulcrum (the vanishing point) and its impact on composition in painting, came the revolution in music — tonality — with its hierarchical aural organization around a fulcrum (the tonic) and its impact on composition in music.  These two systems continued side by side for hundreds of years until their practitioners began to feel that they had exhausted all of the possibilities of the systems in their respective fields.

When a single perspective could no longer articulate the ideas of the twentieth-century artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque (both collaborators with Diaghilev), for example, they revolutionized European painting and sculpture by pioneering cubism — in which a visual subject is depicted from multiple viewpoints.

Music, it seems, liaised with the same Zeitgeist as painting in the early part of the twentieth century, and it was during these same years that Stravinsky explored polytonality in Petrushka — thereby depicting a musical subject in multiple keys.

(Perhaps unknown to Stravinsky, the Hungarian Béla Bartók and the American Charles Ives both had already experimented with music in more than one key — polytonality was but one of the many new ways in which the ear was being challenged in those years.)

To illustrate the effect of multiple viewpoints in cubism, in Juan Gris’ painting Pierrot I (here is a nod to the Commedia dell’Arte again!), we see a frontal view of the face and its profile at the same time — Stravinsky’s triads in two different keys, as it were — encompassing the subject’s greater context.


Juan Gris, Pierrot I, 1919

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


Igor Stravinsky once commented that this chord we have been discussing was Petrushka’s insult to the audience.  But, we needn’t feel insulted by this bitonal assemblage.  It merely seems to signify Petrushka's dual nature: is he a puppet? Or real?

In the next part of this entry, we’ll consider another ballet by Stravinsky, Le sacre du printemps — whose première resulted in a riot.  In the process we’ll look at a different interpretation of the Petrushka chord as well.


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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