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Petrushka & The Violin

Igor Stravinsky

Petrushka Suite (1947)

Stravinsky’s first three ballets for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe in Paris are all drawn on Russian folklore. While The Firebird (1910) most closely reflects the example of the composer’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, the ensuing Petrushka (completed 1911) and Sacre du printemps (1913) established Stravinsky at the avant-garde of music and as one of the greatest musical talents of the 20th century. The score of Petrushka is dazzlingly wrought and orchestrated. Its complexity is so adroitly crafted as to make it readily comprehensible to the first-timer. Yet the higher the level of concentrated listening sustained the more treasure will be revealed. The startlingly imaginative recycling of materials introduced early on is only one example. Musicians love Stravinsky because they find mastering his challenges so rewarding, not mention flattering.

Petrushka’s première took place at the Théâtre du Châtelet in June 1911, with Pierre Monteux conducting and choreography by Mikhail Fokine. Vaslav Nijinsky created the title role. For the 1947 rewrite—heard on today’s program—Stravinsky eliminated the original offstage wind and percussion instruments and deleted one harp. 


Petrushka is the Russian version of Punch, or Pulcinella, a stereotypic (stock) character drawn from the Neapolitan branch of commedia dell’arte, in 16th century Italy, itself associated with Carnival, or Shrovetide. Alexandre Benois, an ex-pat member of an influential St. Petersburg family, collaborated with Stravinsky in writing the scenario as a play within a play and designed the original production’s costumes and sets. The ballet opens on the Shrovetide fair at St. Petersburg’s Admiralty Square. The orchestration and changing rhythms vividly depict the chaotic bustle of carnival. Suddenly two girls begin dancing as an organ grinder plays the French song Une jambe de bois. A roll of drums announces the Charlatan who attracts a crowd to his puppet theater. The curtain rises on three lifeless puppets, Petrushka, a Ballerina and a Moor. With his flute, the Charlatan casts a spell. The puppets spring to life and soon perform a Russian dance to the amazement of all. 

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Violin Concerto in D major Opus 61 (806)

Allegro ma non troppo


  Rondo. Allegro

In 1806, the year Beethoven’s famous violin concerto in D was premièred, the violin itself was in the process of radical transformation. Technological improvements were demanded by the music being composed in that era and the public’s appetite for louder and more intense projection in ever-larger performance venues. Even the venerable Cremona instruments of a century earlier—the Golden Age of Stradivari and Guarneri—were suffering the humiliation of being taken apart and reassembled, their necks tilted back, slimmed and lengthened, their fingerboards raised, their bridges heightened, their sound posts and bass boards thickened. The higher tension of their gut strings now required being wound with silver or replaced entirely with steel. In France, Francois Tourte, the “Stradivari of the bow” made himself immortal by replacing the slender-nosed baroque bow with the much stronger and sharply chiseled “apache” profile ubiquitous in today’s symphony orchestras. His choice of wood, then and with makers ever since, is pernambuco, the name of its Brazilian state of origin; it was and is simultaneously dense and flexible. (Today the species is rare, endangered and as expensive as the mastodon ivory peddled to bow makers from remains found in tundra thaws.)   


Beethoven, of course, only raised the ante. The great virtuosos in Vienna at that time included George Bridgetower, Rodolphe Kreutzer, Ignaz Schuppanzigh and Franz Clement. The first of these premiered the great “Kreutzer Sonata” (but by offending the composer with an off-hand remark about a lady friend lost the dedication to the second, who pronounced the work unplayable.) Schuppanzigh’s quartet premiered many of Beethoven’s middle and late-period string quartets. Clement, concertmaster at the Theater an der Wien, commissioned and premiered the concerto, mostly sight-reading the last-minute arrival of his part (and added a gratuitous perusal of a piece of his own invention, played on one string while holding the violin upside down.) The concerto proved unsuccessful, and would not be heard again until 1844 with Felix Mendelssohn conducting and the 12-year-old Joseph Joachim as soloist. Solo cadenzas still in use are the work of Joachim, Fritz Kreisler and, more recently, Alfred Schnittke.


The concerto was composed while Beethoven was writing his fourth piano concerto. The first movement, including its cadenza, is the longest of any orchestral work written up to that time, which is remarkable for its relatively tame exploration of remote tonalities. The first movement opens on the timpani, a novel innovation. Those five strokes provide a dramatic contrast to the two principal themes of the movement, which are both lyrical. The violin makes a coy entrance and only takes on its full character after the orchestra restates its opening. Laid out in sonata form, the composer inserts the five-stroke motto like a ritornello, the favored organizing device heard in virtually all Baroque concertos. 


Beethoven’s two Romances for violin and orchestra, Opp 40 and 50, can be seen as precursors to the slow movement of the concerto, a piece that contrasts dialogues between solo and orchestra with dreamy, wistful monologs. Near its close, solo ringlets over the orchestra’s melody build a sense of yearning anticipation. Indeed, a brief cadenza leads to the witty and celebrated final rondo, charged with dotted rhythms and full of surprises.


Overall, the concerto eschews virtuosity for its own sake, which undoubtedly contributed to its initial lack of success. Perhaps for that reason, and at the urging of Muzio Clementi, Beethoven fashioned a piano concerto version of it. 

Program Notes by Michael Scott MacClelland



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