Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite

World War I caused a collective shuddering of the soul throughout the world. The attendant horrors — trench warfare, poison gas, mechanized weapons of destruction — set in motion a wave of revulsion and a profound questioning of traditional religious and secular ethical values. A yearning for spiritual comfort and for the perceived (if mythical) alleged sanity of the past sent many artists scurrying backward in time. The famed impresario Diaghilev approached Stravinsky to write a ballet based on the centuries-old commedia dell’arte. To win over the reluctant composer, Diaghilev showed his one-time collaborator several manuscripts he had brought to Paris from a recent trip to Italy. Stravinsky read through the various scores and found himself drawn to works attributed (several in error, one must add) to the short-lived composer Giovanni Pergolesi (1710–36), a talented transitional figure whose music breathes as much the air of the Baroque as the Rococo. ‘I looked,” said Stravinsky, “and I fell in love.” The fruit of this across-the-centuries encounter was Pulcinella, an essentially neo-Classic work — neo-Baroque is an even better term — that reined in Stravinsky’s self-styled primitivism as expressed most shockingly in his 1913 cri de guerre, The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky used Pergolesi’s melodies and bass lines more or less as handed down in the manuscripts shared by Diaghilev, overlaying the 18th-century material with irregular rhythmic phrases and piquant harmonies. He remained quite fond of this music, drawing material from the original ballet for the orchestral suite in 1922 (revised in 1947), adding further versions for violin and piano (1925, revised 1933) and for cello and piano (1932). The two duet versions were thorough rewrites; hence their new title, Suite italienne. Of special significance is that for the three decades subsequent to Stravinsky’s perusal of those manuscripts, much of his music — his entire neo-Classical output — derived from his serendipitous encounter with these infectious scores from the early 18th century.

Fittingly, the work opens with a rousing Sinfonia whose jesting manner sets the tone for the ballet suite. The ensuing movements, by turns humorous, lyrical and mock romantic, focus on the various ruses employed by the Neapolitan maidens seeking to attract the sly Pulcinella through their seductive dances.

The premiere of the original ballet was a brilliant collaboration of Stravinsky’s music, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe dancers, Massine’s choreography and Picasso’s sets. Oh, to have been there!

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