The exquisite and tender music of “The Bird of Fire” is that of Stravinsky’s age of innocence. He quickly progressed to something quite different, a curious blend of Russian humanitarianism and the most sophisticated objectivitythe score of “Petrouchka.”
Petrouchka is a doll, a puppet-like man. He is the superfluous one, and the helpless victim of a brutality he cannot combat. Paul Rosenfeld (“Musical Portraits”) finds this figure to be “the man-machine seen from without, unsympathetically, in its comic as pece. Countless poets before Stravinskys have attempted to portray the puppet-like activities of the human being, and Petrouchka is but one of the recent innumerable stage-shows that expose the automaton in the human soul. But the puppet-show of Stravinsky is singular because of its musical accompaniment. For, more than even the mimes on the stage, the orchestra is full of the spirit of the autotmato. The angular, wooden gestures of the dolls, their smudged faces, their entrails of sawdust, are in the music ten, times as intensely as they are upon the stage. The score is full of revolutions of wheels, of delicate clock-work movements, of screws and turbines.
And what is not purely mechanistic, nevertheless completes the picture of, the world as it appears to one who has seen the man-machine in all its comedy. The stage pictures, the trumpery little fair, the tinsel and pathetic finery of the crowds, the dancing of the human ephemerida eoment before the snow begins to fall, are stained marvelously deeply by the music…. It has indeed a servant-girl grace, a coach, manador, a barrel-organ, tin-type, popcorn, fortune-teller flavor.”
Leonid Sabaneyeff, in his “Modern Russian Composer” (International Publishers, New York), says, somewhat devastatingly, that “the brightest place among Stravinsky’s compositions belongs to ‘Petrouchka.’ Both his opponents and those whom he subsequently alienated were unanimous in admiration of this composition. Perhaps this very woodenness of the theme itself gave him an advantage, for one does not ever sense Stravinsky’s soul in his music; he hides it painstakingly; perhaps he is a sort of Petrouchka him-self, and instead of a life of the soul, he has only tricks and tin-foil magic. Perhaps, like Petrouchka, instead of blood he has klyukva (variety of cranberry juice), and instead of entrails, sawdust. This magician can occasionally make one believe that he is a great musician and make one overlook the inner chill of his creations, which have not been composed by thought and heart but by cold calculation and a hellish technic and the inventiveness of its inventor.
Another comment of a communistically inspired hue: “The ballet depicts the life of the lower classes in Russia, with all its dissoluteness, barbarity, tragedy, and misery. Petrouchka is a sort of Polichinello, a poor hero always suffering from the cruelty of the police and every kind of wrong and unjust persecution. This represents symbolically the whole tragedy in the existence of the Russian people, a suffering from despotism and injustice. The scene is laid in the midst of the Russian carnival, and the streets are lined with booths in which Petrouchka plays a kind of humorous role. He is killed, but he appears again as a ghost on the roof of the booth to frighten his enemy, his old employer, an allusion to the despotic rulers in Russia.”
The scene is the Admiralty Square in old St. Petersburg, at the time of “Butter week” in the Eighteen Thirties. The rising curtain shows a crowd milling around the show-booths. There is dancing, laughter, horse-play. Two organ-grinders compete with each other, and are capitally taken off by the orchestra. The old showman, with his flute, comes before the people, assuring them by his gestures of an important spectacle. The curtains of the booths are yanked aside, and they reveal three life-sized dolls, figures which prance and cavort in a quick, mechanical way to the music. These dolls are Petrouchka, the poor foolish hero of the farce; the Dancer, and the Moor. Petrouchka loves the Dancer, but she is aiisensible to his advances, and, on the other hand, is much taken by the swaggering, coarse, sensual Moor. And so the puppets are set spinning, and one of life’s little ironies, in effigy, passes before us.
A roll of the drums and the scene changes to the room of Petrouchka. He enters, distracted, consumed with his desires and despairs. He rehearses steps and gestures with which he hopes to impress the Dancer. She enters, but is frightened by Petrouchka’s eagerness, and soon leaves. The drum rolls again. We see the room of the apish Moor. He is toying with a coconut before which, since he can neither open nor understand it, he soon prostrates himself in worship. Clad in his gorgeous uniform, he is lolling recumbent, when the Dancer enters with her pirouette and her toy trumpet, to coquette with him. The Moor watches her, first with indifference, then complacency, finally with greed. Petrouchka bursts in, to the annoyance of the pair, and the Moor kicks him out for his pains. The Dancer, with feigned reluctance, falls into the arms of the Moor as the curtain falls.
Again the scene of the fair. The crowd becomes more uproarious as evening gathers, and snow falls. Dances by grooms and nurses. A lumbering bear is depicted by the tuba in the orchestra. Drunken merchants reel in with gypsy girls on their arms; they scatter ruble notes to the multitude. Suddenly there are cries of consternation. From the booth, before the alarmed crowd, runs Petrouchka, terrified and unarmed, pursued by the Moor. The Moor quickly overtakes and cuts him down. The puppet falls with an agonized squeak. The people do not understand. What has happened? The venerable showman steps forward. He reassures them. See! He picks up Petrouchka; saw-dust falls out. This is not a living man, nor a human heart. Only a mechanism, with sawdust for a soul. Sometimes these mechanisms go wrong, and this one is in need of repair.
The show is over. Gradually the Squre is emptied. The showman prepares to shut up shop and retire. But suddenly, over the roof of the booth, is seen Petrouchka’s ghost, white-faced, with arms that wave in protest, like a crazy semaphore. Ghostly, too, is the commentary of Stravinsky’s music.
Several interpretations of “Petrouchka” have been quoted; to any of them, or to some other one of his own, the reader is entitled. Its tragedy is -the more gripping for its laconism. Let us adm’t: nothing, lest we weep. The scenario of “Petrouchka: Scenes burlesques en four tableaux,” is by Alexandre Benois. Subject and music appear to reflect the Russian nature. Gogol and Mussorgsky are there. Everything is reflected in the score with a sure and reckless mastery the movement and tumult of the crowd; the gait and aspect of each leading figure; and the grotesque agonies of the helpless one. A shriek of Lwo trumpets in different keys is the motto of Petrouchka’s protest. The composition is permeated with Russian folk-melodies and also street songs marvelously treated. The technical virtuosity, in the combinations of rhythms and keys, is already breath-taking I say “already,” with thought in mind of the epochal “Sacre du printemps,” still to come. The instrumentation has a new, acrid and kaleidoscopic glint. One would be tempted to say that the composer who could achieve two such manifestations within a period of two years as “The Bird of Fire” and “Petrouchka” could expect an unlimited future.