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MUSIC/ The "Gift" of Stravinsky

Hundred years ago, the first performance of Stravinsky's masterpiece, the ballet Pétrouchka, took place in Paris, and it confirmed his ability to put into music the fabulous world of Russia

Alexandre Bénoit for Petrushka Alexandre Bénoit for Petrushka

The first performance of Igor Stravinsky's masterpiece, the ballet Pétrouchka (I am writing it in French because Paris was then the home chosen by the Russian composer and, indeed, the first place where the ballet has been performed ), took place on June 13, hundred years ago. It was successful because it confirmed the rich, descriptive vein of this musician and his ability to put into music the fabulous world of faraway Russia, popular and profound; and it confirmed the extraordinary genius of rhythm and timbre of the still young musician (he was 29 years old then).

Speaking of the composition of this masterpiece (probably the most performed of all the Stravinsky repertoire), curiously, the composer recalls two facts. The first is the birth of his second child, which occurred right during the first weeks of writing the work. The second is a dream in which suddenly he had become a hunchback, like a deformed phantom.

The story of the ballet is told quickly. We are in St. Petersburg during the festivities of the carnival and all the people are gathered in the square to dance, drink, and wander through the corridors of the fair, full of wonders never seen: a dancing bear, a magic lantern, jugglers and acrobats. In one caravan, the charlatan is moving his three puppets: the Ballerina, pretty but a bit of an airhead; the Moor, strong and stupid; and then Pétrouchka, not so clever, but oddly sensitive for a puppet.

In the midst of the finale of the celebration, the tragedy: Pétrouchka, jealous lover of the Ballerina, catches her in the company of Moro; this triggers the quarrel that ends with the killing of the weakest. The people gather around Pétrouchka, puzzled, but the Charlatan is quick to show them that it is just a puppet and pulls him away through the snow. The people take a breath and go home.

If it ended this way, the ballet is simply a good example of musical technique, which is truly overwhelming and extremely innovative; it would be a well-told tale, but still a fairy tale: brilliant and with a melancholy end. It is melancholy so to speak because basically it was just a puppet that died, who was not too bright.