The gestation of Petrushka is somewhat complicated. While completing The Firebird during the spring of 1910, Stravinsky had a "vision" of "a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of Spring. Such was the theme of the The Rite of Spring. As early as May 1910, he had discussed the idea with Nicholas Roerich, the leading Russian expert on folk art and ancient rituals. Stravinsky and Roerich sketched a scenario and gave the project the working title The Great Sacrifice.
Immediately following the stunning success of The Firebird in June 1910, Diaghilev approached Stravinsky about a new ballet; the composer proposed the Great Sacrifice idea. Diaghilev accepted in principle, and suggested that the premiere might take place during the Ballets Russes Paris season during the spring of 1912.
At the end of September 1910, Diaghilev went to visit Stravinsky in Clarens, Switzerland, where he was living at the time. Expecting to discuss The Great Sacrifice, Diaghilev was astonished to find Stravinsky hard at work on a totally different project.
Stravinsky, it seems, had had another vision: "I saw a man in evening dress, with long hair, the musician or poet of the romantic tradition. He placed several heteroclite objects on the keyboard and rolled them up and down. At this the orchestra exploded with the most vehement protestations – hammer blows, in fact …"
Later, he said: "In composing the music, I had in my mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts."
Although Stravinsky had conceived of the music as a pure concert work – a Konzertstück – Diaghilev immediately realized its theatrical potential. The notion of a puppet put Diaghilev in mind of Petrushka, the Russian version of Punch and Judy that had formed a traditional part of the pre-Lenten Carnival festivities in the St. Petersburg of the 1830s.
Stravinsky composed the music during the winter of 1910–11 for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. It was premièred in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet on 13 June 1911 under conductor Pierre Monteux, with choreography by Michel Fokine and sets by Alexandre Benois. The title role was danced by Vaslav Nijinsky.
The work is characterized by the so-called Petrushka chord (consisting of C major and F♯ major triads played together), a bitonality device heralding the appearance of the main character. (Wikipedia)
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