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ClassicsOnline Home » STRAVINSKY, I.: Pulcinella / Scherzo fantastique (Graham, Wilson, Opalach, Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
The ballet Pulcinella was first staged in Paris in 1920. Sergey Dyagilev had gathered around him some of the greatest artistic talents of the age: choreographer and dancer Léonide Massine, Pablo Picasso, who provided the astonishing designs, and Stravinsky. For the story of a travelling Italian theatre company, Stravinsky took music derived from Pergolesi and his contemporaries, and fashioned it into new and rich life, magical and piquant. The Scherzo fantastique, Op 3 is a lavish and brilliantly scored orchestral showpiece.
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
Pulcinella • Scherzo fantastique, Op 3
Igor Stravinsky was the son of a distinguished bass soloist at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, and creator of important rôles in new operas by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He was born, the third of four sons, at Oranienbaum on the Gulf of Finland in the summer of 1882. In childhood his ability in music did not seem exceptional, but he was able to study music privately with Rimsky-Korsakov, who became a particularly important influence after the death of Stravinsky’s imperious father in 1902. He completed a degree in law in 1905, married in the following year and increasingly devoted himself to music. His first significant success came when the impresario Dyagilev, a distant relative on his mother’s side of the family, commissioned from him the ballet The Firebird, first performed in Paris in 1910. This was followed by the very Russian Petrushka in 1911 for the Dyagilev Ballets russes, with which he was now closely associated, leading in 1913 to the notorious first performance of The Rite of Spring, first staged, like the preceding ballets, in Paris. Although collaboration with Dyagilev was limited during the war, when Stravinsky lived principally in Switzerland, it was resumed with the ballet Pulcinella, based on music attributed to Pergolesi, and marking Stravinsky’s association with neo-classicism. The end of the collaboration with Dyagilev was marked by what the impresario considered a macabre present, the Cocteau collaboration Oedipus Rex.
Stravinsky has been compared to his near contemporary Picasso, the painter who provided décor for Pulcinella and who through a long career was to show mastery of a number of contrasting styles. Stravinsky’s earlier music was essentially Russian in inspiration, followed by a style of composition derived largely from the eighteenth century, interspersed with musical excursions in other directions. His so-called neo-classicism coincided with the beginning of a career that was now international. The initial enthusiasm for the Russian revolution of 1917 that had led even Dyagilev to replace crown and sceptre in The Firebird with a red flag, was soon succeeded by distaste for the new régime and the decision not to return to Russia.
In 1939, with war imminent in Europe, Stravinsky moved to the United States, where he had already enjoyed considerable success. The death of his first wife allowed him to marry a woman with whom he had enjoyed a long earlier association and the couple settled in Hollywood, where the climate seemed congenial. Income from his compositions was at last safeguarded by his association with the publishers Boosey and Hawkes in 1945, the year of his naturalisation as an American citizen. The year 1951 saw the completion and first performance of the English opera The Rake’s Progress, based on Hogarth engravings with a libretto by WH Auden and Chester Kallman, a work that came at the final height of the composer’s neo-classicism. The last period of his life brought a change to serialism, the technique of composition developed by Arnold Schoenberg, a fellow-exile in California, with whom he had never chosen to associate. In 1962 he made a triumphant return to Russia for a series of concerts in celebration of his eightieth birthday. Among his final compositions are the Requiem Canticles of 1965–66, which follow his Requiem Introitus for the death of the poet TS Eliot, but prefigure his own death, which took place in New York in April 1971. He was buried in the cemetery on the island of San Michele in Venice, his grave near that of Dyagilev, whose percipience had launched his career sixty years before.
Dyagilev had not been happy at Stravinsky’s apparent desertion of the Ballets russes during the war, but, according to the composer, attempted to lure him back by the suggestion of a ballet based on music attributed to Pergolesi. This followed the success of Vincenzo Tommasini’s The Good-Humoured Ladies, based on Scarlatti. The choreographer and dancer Léonide Massine, during a visit in 1917 to Naples, when he was able to do research into the techniques of the commedia dell’arte, had found a play that might form a suitable basis for the new ballet, The Four Pulcinellas. Dyagilev arranged a collaboration between Stravinsky, Massine and Pablo Picasso, all very much under his own supervision. The work was eventually staged at the Paris Opéra on 15 May 1920, conducted by Ernest Ansermet, and won a very considerable success among the more discerning. Picasso’s final design made use of panels suggesting the portable scenery of Italian travelling theatre-companies, with buildings of cubist inspiration, a quay, the moonlit bay of Naples and Vesuvius in the background. The colours used were black, blue and white, with a white ground-cloth, suggesting moonlight. The dancers wore brightly coloured costumes in eighteenth-century style, while Pulcinella, danced by Massine himself, wore the traditional commedia dell’arte mask. The music itself, based on excerpts from operas by Pergolesi and movements of instrumental works more properly to be attributed to contemporaries or imitators of Pergolesi, Domenico Gallo, Fortunato Chelleri, Carlo Monza and the nineteenth-century Alessandro Parisotti, was scored for chamber orchestra and three singers and is, as Stravinsky pointed out, very much more than mere pastiche. The piquant harmonies and instrumental timbres make this very characteristic of neo-classical Stravinsky. Many of the dances are familiar from the Suite italienne derived from the score for concert use and from the orchestral ballet suite Pulcinella.
The episode taken from the story of the four Pulcinella look-alikes concerns the real Pulcinella or Polichinelle of the title, who meets the girls Rosetta and Prudenza, rebuffing one and dancing with the other. His innamorata Pimpinella is angry at this, but they are reconciled in a duet. All the girls love Pulcinella, and this has naturally excited the jealousy of their lovers, notably Caviello and Florindo, who plan to kill him. It seems that they have succeeded, when Pulcinella falls beneath their blows, apparently dead and mourned by four little Pulcinellas. A magician appears and revives the corpse, not Pulcinella at all, but his friend Furbo, who had impersonated him and feigned death. The magician now reveals himself as Pulcinella, happily settling the marriages of the lovers for them, while he himself marries Pimpinella, and Furbo assumes the guise of the magician.
Stravinsky wrote his Scherzo fantastique, Op 3, between June 1907 and March 1908, at a time when he was still studying with Rimsky-Korsakov. He dedicated it to Alexander Siloti, who conducted the first performance in 1909, after Rimsky-Korsakov’s death. The work is lavishly scored and drew inspiration from Maeterlinck’s La vie des abeilles (The Life of Bees), leading to copyright problems when it was later staged at the Paris Opéra in 1917 as a ballet, with a programme that made specific reference to Maeterlinck. Stravinsky himself later claimed that he had intended the piece as pure symphonic music, without a programme, but when the score was published it included a note on the narrative implicit in the work. The piece starts with music suggesting the life of bees in the hive, leading to a central section introduced by the alto flute and showing the sunrise, the flight of the queen bee, and her contest with her mate, a drone, who dies. The third section, which echoes the first, has the bees busy once more in their daily activities.
The Scherzo fantastique is a brilliant orchestral showpiece, scored with a skill of which Rimsky-Korsakov expressed his approval. It was after hearing this piece at its first performance that Dyagilev, with his usual foresight, commissioned Stravinsky to orchestrate part of the ballet Les Sylphides, followed, of course, by The Firebird, a score that launched Stravinsky’s career.
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