Stravinsky: ``Pulcinella'' Suite

Igor Stravinsky, 1882-1970. Suite from the ballet Pulcinella, after themes by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Ballet completed 1920, first performance May 15, 1920, in Paris; suite completed 1922, revised 1949, first performance December 22, 1922, in Boston. Scored for chamber orchestra of 2 each flutes, oboes, bassoons, and horns, 1 trumpet, 1 trombone, string quintet, and strings.

In the spring of 1919, Serge Diaghilev, the impresario who had collaborated with Stravinsky on such successes as The Rite of Spring, The Firebird, and Petrushka, suggested to the composer that he write a ballet based on some of Pergolesi's music. At first Stravinsky demurred, not being particularly fond of the Pergolesi he knew (primarily the Stabat Mater), but Diaghilev showed him some little-known manuscripts which caught his fancy, and so he agreed to the idea.

Pulcinella was an important turning point in Stravinsky's career, for it led him into the so-called ``neo-classical'' style which was to dominate his output for the next several decades. Unlike his earlier ballets, which were characterized by huge orchestras, and innovative rhythms, Pulcinella is relatively simple and sparse, scored for 33 chamber players and 3 vocal soloists, and sticking mostly to time signatures that had been used two centuries earlier. But even though Stravinsky used Pergolesi's melodies and bass lines with little change, he managed to put his own unmistakable stamp on the ballet through his use of modern harmonies and occasional rhythmic modifications.

In the ballet, Pulcinella, a traditional hero of Neapolitan commedia dell'arte, has captured the hearts of all the local girls. Enraged, their fiances plot to kill him, but he outwits them and substitutes a double, who feigns death and is then ``revived'' by a disguised Pulcinella. When the young men return, Pulcinella arranges marriages for everyone, and himself weds Pimpinella to produce the requisite happy ending.

Despite minor squabbles between the various principals, the first production (with costumes and scenery by Picasso) was a huge success. When Stravinsky later turned the ballet into a concert suite, he selected 11 movements from the original 18, replacing the vocal solos with instrumental passages. It is in this form, as well as in Stravinsky's transcriptions for violin or 'cello with piano (under the title Suite Italienne), that the work has achieved its greatest popularity.

© 1995, Geoff Kuenning

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