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Program Notes – Stravinsky’s Petrushka

Welcome to the National Repertory Orchestra’s annual free community concert.  If this is your first visit, we want to make you feel welcome and hope you will come back often.

We begin with the curiously titled Cockaigne (In London Town) by Edward Elgar.  The title is Elgar’s invention, meaning “Cockneyland”. This is a lively and colorful piece that is supposed to depict a musical portrait of life in London at the turn of the century. This is one of Elgar’s happiest works.  It feels jaunty, spontaneous and English.  Elgar was unabashedly English, in appearance, manner and as revealed by his compositions. 

Our next composer was just as nationalistic as Elgar.  Joaquín Rodrigo, born in 1901, was the last of the great Spanish nationalist composers.  He is most famous for his compositions for guitar and orchestra, which sound decidedly Spanish. The most famous of these is Concierto de Aranjuez, composed in 1939.  In 1974, Rodrigo transcribed the concerto for harp and orchestra.  It is an exceptionally challenging work for the soloist.

Rodrigo lived until age 97 and had a full and celebrated life in Spain.  He was director of Spanish Radio and filled the Manuel de Falla Chair at the University of Madrid.

Two remarkable facts about Joaquín Rodrigo:  1) He was a pianist and never played the guitar and 2) He was blind from the age of three.

Igor Stravinsky’s impact on the music world cannot be overstated.  With his ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, he changed the language of large scale composition by using rhythm as the prominent building block.  Of all the composers of the 20th Century, Leonard Bernstein said “one figure stands out as a giant—the giant—Igor Stravinsky”.  

Petrushka is simply astonishing.   Following the phenomenally successful ballet The Fire-Bird, Stravinsky began to develop themes for his next composition.  He knew he wanted it to be a ballet but he didn’t have a story in mind.  He described how he spent hours wandering around the shores of Lake Geneva, whistling tunes from this ballet without a subject matter.   Then, he said the idea burst upon him. He would call it Petrushka, after the shy clown Petrushka, who is made of straw and comes alive with human feelings.  The cast includes a ballerina with whom he falls in love; and a black-hearted villain, a brutal Moor.  His ballet created a world of imagination and fantasy, populated with dolls and puppets.

Stravinsky’s work often shocked audiences. This one certainly did:  the Moor brutally slays the poor puppet Petrushka.  However, as they say on TV, “Wait, there’s more.” The puppet’s ghost appears and seems to put a curse on his tormentor, leaving the audience to wonder what is real and what is fantasy.

Petrushka premiered in Paris in 1911 and was immediately successful, even more so than The Fire-Bird.  It secured Stravinsky’s place as one of the most important and original composers in the world.  In 1947, he made major revision in the work.  This is the one most frequently preformed and the one we hear tonight.

Unlike the English Elgar and the Spanish Rodrigo, Stravinsky changed nationalities three times.  He was born near Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1882.  In 1919, he moved his family to a suburb of Paris and applied for French citizenship.  For the next fifteen years, Paris was his home and he became more French than Russian.  His music also changed, becoming more classically oriented than revolutionary.  Stravinsky visited the United States for the first time in 1925, conducting his works before many American orchestras.   He made several other trips to the United States over the years.  With war approaching in Europe in 1939, Stravinsky changed homes again.  He applied for American citizenship in 1941 and soon after settled in California.  For many years, he was busy composing and conducting.  After 1966, however, his conducting appearances came less frequently and he began having health problems. The family moved to New York in 1969 to find better medical care.

At the age of eighty, Stravinsky issued this statement: “I regard my talent as God-given and I pray to Him daily for the strength to use it. When I discovered that I had been made custodian of this gift, in my earliest childhood, I pledged myself to God to be worthy of it, but I have received uncovenanted mercies all my life.” He died April 6, 1971. He was buried in Venice.

Written by Doug Adams