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Stravinsky Petrushka - Ravel Concerto in G major

David St. George

STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)


Petrushka



Igor Stravinsky's career as a composer did not begin with Petrushka, but this ballet
was, in a sense, the first work which he could truly call his own. The influence of his
teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, had been pervasive and was still clearly audible in The
Firebird of the previous year. But with Petrushka he jettisoned most of the Rimsky-like
traits, absorbed what was of use to him from Debussy and Mussorgsky, and added the
unfettered resources of his own imagination. Virtually overnight he became a radical.


It is perhaps not easy to appreciate how strange this score seemed to its first audience.
Petrushka has become one of the most familiar and beloved twentieth-century
orchestral works, and some of its dazzling and impudent newness has worn off. (The
composer once remarked that, unlike Schoenherg's Five Orchestral Pieces, and
Webern's six, Petrushka had not been protected by fifty years of neglect.) We know
from the reviews of the first performances in Paris, London and the United States
that the critics of that time, with remarkable unanimity, found the music marvellous
because it was so apt for the touching and weird ballet, but felt that it could not
survive in the concert hall. Divorced from stage action that explained and justified it,
the uncouth, prickly music would be intolerably discordant, even senseless.


Of course, the first critics were wrong, and it is, in fact, in the concert hall that the
work has most frequently been encountered in recent years. Petrushka began life as a
virtuoso concert piece for piano and orchestra. After the huge success of The Firebird
Sergei Diaghilev had commissioned Stravinsky to write another work for the Ballet
russe. Stravinsky had been thinking for some time about writing a descriptive
symphony dealing with a spring rite in pagan Russia. The balletic possibilities were
obvious to Diaghilev, so Stravinsky went off to Switzerland for the summer of 1910 to
begin The Rite of Spring. First, however, he wanted to relax by writing something in a
more parodistic vein - a piece for piano and orchestra in which the composer imagined
the piano as a puppet who taunts the orchestra with pranks, while the orchestra
retaliates with trumpet blasts. After it was finished it occurred to Stravinsky to name it
after Petrushka, the Russian Punch, who is a favourite character of holiday puppet
shows in Russia. When Diaghilev visited him in the summer to see how work on The
Rite was progressing, he was greeted instead with this curious work for piano and
orchestra. Intrigued by the puppet theme, and sensing the potential of a great role for
Nijinsky, he persuaded Stravinsky to expand it into a full-length ballet. The ballet as
we know it took shape over the next ten months - the original concert piece, with a
few changes, serving as the second scene of the ballet.


Thus we have Diaghilev to thank, not only for the creation of Petrushka, but also for
causing a delay of one year in the composition of The Rite of Spring. At this crucial stage
of his development Stravinsky was just finding his own voice and discovering the new
ways of manipulating the materials of tonal music that were to form the basis of his
musical grammar at least until the mid-1950s. Had he begun The Rite without the
experience of working in the idiom of Petrushka it might have been a very different and
less epoch-making work.


The curtain rises on the Shrove-Tide Fair in St. Petersburg. It is a clear winter's day in
the 1830s. We see crowds of people, some in festival costume, swarming across the
stage to buy candies at the numerous vendors' stalls, to participate in the amusements,
or to watch a showman demonstrate optical illusions. Stravinsky shows all of this in
the music - the movement of the crowds, the crispness of the winter's day, the
exuberant festival spirit, and the Russian-ness of it all. At the opening blurred trills
are heard in the clarinets and horns, a wonderful effect achieved by having some of
the players trill twice as fast as others. Above the trills the flutes have a crackling
pentatonic tune. An odd stuttering rhythm is played by the wind and piano. In his
later years Stravinsky wrote with pride about this deftly negotiated rhythm of seven
against six, which already surpasses in finesse any similar rhythmical contrivance to
be found in The Firebird. The lower strings in this passage are already giving a
foretaste of the Russian folk song which is soon stomping lustily through the whole
orchestra. (Stravinsky used a great number of Russian folk songs in Petrushka, as well
as two banner waltzes and a Parisian street song.)


Soon the din subsides enough for an organ grinder to be heard in the midst of the
crowd - his wheezing and not quite correctly adjusted instrument is captured to
perfection by flutes and clarinets. He is joined by a street dancer who performs while
beating time on a triangle, and, continuing to turn the crank, he places a trumpet to
his lips with his free hand. From a little farther off a music box (celesta) can be heard,
but then the sound of the merrymakers drowns out everything else. Two drummers
draw the attention of the crowd towards the puppet theatre, and suddenly the
magician steps out, to a surprised yelp from the orchestra. The style of writing, which
so far has been so sturdy and earthy, now turns to shimmering points of colour as the
magician produces his magic flute and plays a cadenza - pretentiously and with
inflated rhetoric. This magician is evidently part wizard, part humbug. Touching
each of the three puppets with the flute he brings them to life. Petrushka the
Ballerina, and the Moor, still attached to their hooks, jiggle to the rhythm of the
Danse russe, and after a while astonish the crowd by coming down from the stage and
dancing in the street. It is in this familiar, energetic dance that the piano comes into its
own as the virtuoso musical counterpart to Petrushka spiky, frenetic movements.


A steady hammering on the drums marks the change of scene.


The second scene takes place in the love-sick Petrushka's little cell, into which he is
unceremoniously kicked by the magician as the curtain rises. This brief scene - the first
to be composed - depicts Petrushka's despair and rage, a fleeting visit from the
Ballerina, who is put off by Petrushka's frenzied attempt to make a good impression and
quickly leaves, and the even greater frenzy when he is left alone again. At the
beginning of this scene one hears for the first time the famous 'Petrushka chord', a C
major chord and an F-sharp major chord played at the same time or arpeggiated
together. (In later years Stravinsky spoke of this curiously brittle dissonance as
Petrushka's insult to the audience.) It appears first in two clarinets and then is
transferred to the piano, which dominates the scene. It was Stravinsky's habit always
to compose at the piano, and often the actual physical set-up of the keyboard suggested
harmonic ideas to him. In this scene, the Petrushka chord and much of the piano
figuration derive from opposing black keys, played with the left hand, against white
keys, played with the right. (The most well-known chord in The Rite of Spring - the
pounding bi-tonal chord repeated with irregular accents near the opening - is similarly
tied to the layout of the keyboard.) After a flood of flailing piano figures and some
shrill raging from the brass, the mood becomes calmer, although the piano reminds us
that Petrushka could flare up at any second. Particularly beautiful is the melancholy
tenderness of the cor anglais solo with its deft and exotic accompaniment.


The mood is shattered when the Ballerina trips in, witnesses a few seconds of
Petrushka's amorously lunatic behaviour and runs out again, slamming the door on a
diminished seventh chord, that tired old harmony worn to death by three generations
of opera composers, which is given a new lease of life here, thanks to the unusual
spacing of its components and to one ambiguously functioning and agonised B-flat in
the clarinet. The cor anglais sheds a few tears for the lonely misfit, and a return of
Petrushka's impotent rage brings the scene to a close.


Another volley from the drums leads to the third scene.


We are now in the Moor's cell. We see him dressed in resplendent costume, lying on
a couch and snarling fearsome open fifths. Two other themes associated with the
Moor pass in review - a lumbering tune uncouthly scored for clarinets two octaves
apart, and an especially nasty motif in the cor anglais. The Ballerina enters,
determined to make a conquest of the Moor, and dances to a tawdry sort of waltz,
whose triteness is intentionally intensified by its inept scoring for flute and trumpet.
When the Moor tries to partner her, he does so to the lumbering tune heard earlier,
which is in 2/4, and in the chaotic conflict of that metre with the 3/4 of the waltz one
can almost feel the Ballerina's dainty feet being trod upon. Angry trumpet calls like
those in the preceding scene signal the arrival of Petrushka and after a brief but
violent scrap he is thrown out of the door. The scene closes with the Moor's derisive
laughter.


Once more drums announce the change of scene.


It is evening and we are once again outside at the fair. Various set dances by the local
"types' comprise the main body of this scene. The very opening recalls in a new form
the whirring music of the beginning of the ballet and is quite like a more robust version
of Wagner's Forest Murmurs. (How Stravinsky would have winced at that comparison!) The first dance is that of the nursemaids, which uses two more of the folk songs. The first, played by the oboe, is a long, sweepingly lyrical statement, and its effect, after so much that has been short, clipped, tersely motivic, is quite exhilarating. The second, first heard in the wind, is tart and snappish. At the end of the dance the two themes are combined, to be abruptly interrupted by a peasant leading a dancing bear. The cumbrous music for this is scored for low, plodding strings and wind and high, strident clarinets. Nadia Boulanger has reported how intrigued Stravinsky was by some primitive accordions - the way that one chord could be heard wheezing out while the next one was wheezing in. This effect can be clearly heard in his writing for the lower parts depicting the bear.


The 'forest murmurs' steal in again softly, and soon we hear the dance of the Gipsies o a
rousing melody that emphasises its octave range with impetuous glissandi every few
bars. The dance of the Coachmen is characterised by broad, heavy chords in the lower
strings and a very regular, measured tread. Soon the coachmen are dancing with
nursemaids, and we hear the coachmen's theme in a curious canon, spiced with
dissonance. Finally the Maskers enter in a barrage of lightning-quick motifs like bullets
whistling past one's ear. The apocalyptic chords in the brass are a masked devil darting
around in the crowd.


At the climax of all this the mood is broken by the piercing high note of a trumpet - a
cry from behind the scene, and the Moor and Petrushka rush onto the stage. There is a
brief scuffle, and suddenly Petrushka is felled by a blow on the skull from the Moor's
sabre. As the two fight we hear hysterical, truncated versions of the themes associated
with both characters. Then, after a sharp crack from the orchestra, there follows what
is in effect a kind of elegy, formed from virtually all of the music that is thematically
related to the title character. But these motifs are for the most part only hinted at,
through a harmony or even a single, precisely placed note. One last flair-up of
Petrushka's characteristic motif in the trumpet is his ghost, still thumbing his nose at
the audience, and the ballet closes quietly and pathetically on C and F-sharp, the two
keys that had symbolised Petrushka's agony, that of a man's soul trapped in the
machinery of a puppet.


Stravinsky revised the score very thoroughly in 1946. This was to correct some
instrumental balances that had bothered him since the premiere, to make the piano a
more organic part of the whole ballet, and to gain control of the copyright once
again. (International copyright laws in the early part of the century were so
ambiguous that all of his scores composed before the thirties were pirated quite legally
in the United States and elsewhere.) Ever since this version appeared there has been
controversy over which version is preferable. There is no doubt that some of the
changes introduce stylistic traits of late Stravinsky that are somewhat incongruous in
the context of this early work. But the colour and panache of the original remain
undimmed in the later version.


In his last years Stravinsky had occasion to talk and write about Petrushka quite often.
One can detect a parent's fondness in his attitude towards this ballet, which even in
his mid-eighties remained the favourite child of his youth.


RAVEL (1875-1937)

Piano Concerto in G


Maurice Ravel was among the most fastidious of composers, both as a musician and in
his personal habits. But he had one odd quirk of character - the most passionate love of
his life was quite possibly his love for his own music, and he never passed up an
opportunity to play his piano works in public, even though his technical competence
was middling at best and most of his piano music lay on the cutting edge of
instrumental virtuosity. So around 1929 he conceived the idea of writing a concerto
which he could premiere in Paris and then take on tour throughout Europe. As usual,
because of his meticulous and ruthlessly self-critical attitude towards composition,
work on the 25-minute concerto progressed very slowly. It was not ready for
performance until three years later, and, despite several bouts of truly maniacal
practising, Ravel was never ready to play it. The Paris premiere, in January 1932, went
to his long-time associate Marguerite Long, with Ravel conducting the Lamoureux
Orchestra.


According to an interview with Pierre Leroi given three months before the premiere,
when Ravel was still entertaining fantasies of playing the piece himself, his wish 'was
to write a genuine concerto, that is, a brilliant work, clearly highlighting the soloist's
virtuosity, without seeking to show profundity'. Brilliant and virtuoso the concerto
certainly is. Whether or not the middle movement succeeds in avoiding profundity is
open to question, although Ravel's assertion that profundity was not parr of his
intention can probably be accepted at face value. What he meant by a 'genuine
concerto' was a reaction to the piano concertos of Brahms, which he felt were written
for piano against orchestra. In Ravel's concerto the orchestra is light and transparent,
not of overwhelming size, and all the principals of the wind and brass sections have
substantial solo opportunities, more reminiscent of the practice of Mozart than of the
late romantics. Most important, grandiosity is studiously avoided - the motion is
swift, deft, subtle, and sure. The audience is left with the satisfied feeling that the
composer has done his job supremely well - not one note could have been otherwise.


The opening of the concerto inevitably brings to mind the beginning of Stravinsky's
Petrushka - the same fairground atmosphere, with drum roll, folk-like melody in the
piccolo, and the piano providing a blurred underpinning with figuration in two keys
at once (the latter idea virtually stolen from Stravinsky's ballet). In the exposition of
this sonata movement five distinct themes are developed: after a restatement of the
opening tune on the solo trumpet the second theme appears on the piano alone, very
Spanish in flavour, graphically imitating the strumming of a guitar. Appended to this
theme is a jazzy, Gershwinesque tag of five notes in the high clarinet and muted
trumpet. A second jazz tune unfolds in the piano against a syncopated
accompaniment, in a more introverted blues style, and is again interrupted by the
five-note tag. There follows yet a third jazz-inflected theme in the piano, and one can
almost feel the composer's delight at taking the syncopated accompaniment of the
previous tune and turning it into a playfully mocking motif in the treble of the piano,
which then takes on a life of its own. The development section concerns itself mainly
with the play of two themes, the opening melody, developed by the piano in toccata-
like fashion, and the five-note jazz tag. A brief cadenza of irregular scale figures leads
to the recapitulation. All the material of the exposition makes its reappearance here,
but there are several rather amazing new developments. While the piano remains
mute the second jazz tune - the lazy blues - now appears as a cadenza for harp, played
in eerie harmonics against a background of glissandos, and all jazz feeling is drained
from it so that it seems like some ghostly shade of its former self. In a continuation of
the cadenza the woodwinds imitate the natural playing style of the harp, while the solo
horn in its highest register intones the erstwhile blues melody. Then, strangest of all,
the piano enters with a solo cadenza that is a variation of the last of the jazz tunes, but,
as if infected by the uncanny spirit of what has just preceded it, the right hand plays a
series of connected trills that imitate the style of the 'musical saw' - a sound both
strangely poetic and unforgettably weird. A coda based mainly on the first theme
brings the movement to a buoyant close.


The Adagio's magnificent opening piano solo is elegiac and consoling at once.
Although it appears to float out in a single effortless wave of inspiration, it actually
cost the composer no end of trouble o by his own admission it was wrested note by note
out of an agonising bout of creative block. There is an apollonian coolness about the
melody, a kind of remoteness that hints at tremendous emotional depths but does not
let one too close to them. Towards the end of its long, winding course, which has no
literal repetitions, the piano is joined by flute, oboe, and clarinet in solo phrases that
bring this first section of the movement to its expressive high point. The middle
section continues the smooth rhythmic flow, but now the harmony is far more darkly
tinged by beautiful and poignant dissonances, mostly created by the simultaneous
appearance of major and minor forms of the same scale. Slowly rising chords in
different parts of the orchestra and more rapid figuration in the piano lead to a climax
in which heartbreak seems to lie just beneath the iridescent surface. A beautiful
modulation leads immediately to a return of the opening section. In his greatest gift to
the cor anglais Ravel has that instrument carry the entire melody, supported and
decorated by figuration in the piano. One of the most magical moments is the
deceptive cadence at the conclusion of the cor anglais solo, which ushers in valedictory comments from the other solo winds. The Adagio is a movement whose
apparent simplicity of form conceals an astonishing perfection of craftsmanship and
subtlety of expression. It is one of the key passages in his oeuvre where the uniqueness
of Ravel's genius is most completely manifest.


The third movement is a different matter altogether - a light, fast, youthfully sassy,
almost frivolous sonata-rondo of tastefully rampaging good spirits. The opening once
again recalls Petrushka with its military drum roll, booming bass drum and general
fairground atmosphere. The themes, short and rhythmically chiselled, all bring with
them the aura of somewhere other than the concert hall - a jazz riff, a snatch of folk-
like melody, a military fanfare. Apart from some whip-cracking mock theatrics which
provide punctuation, it is virtually a non-stop toccata for the piano. The overall
effect of the movement is that of a playful, invigorating and much-needed slap in the
face.


David St. George



   


 
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