Stravinsky's "Pulcinella"

Stravinsky's "Pulcinella"

Exploring his neoclassical roots.

The score for the ballet Pulcinella is one of Russian-by-birth, French-and-American-by-choice composer Igor Stravinsky’s most enduring compositions. The neoclassical ballet tells the story of Pulcinella, the puppet character popularized in Italian Commedia dell’arte, and explores his relationship with his girlfriend and friends. Aside from Stravinsky, the original ballet had Pablo Picasso as set and costume designer. The ballet premiered at the Paris Opera in May of 1920.  

Pulcinella was the fourth of a number of ballets commissioned by ballet financier, Sergei Diaghilev. Stravinsky’s fame grew exponentially after the success of his first three ballets, including Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913). The ballet was scored for a chamber orchestra, as well as soprano, tenor and baritone soloists.

Pulcinella is one of Stravinsky’s most successful, lengthier neoclassical compositions. Many say that Pulcinella was the first of Stravinsky’s forays into neoclassicalism, a form which he continued to explore in his later career. Neoclassicism relies on traditional forms; essentially, is a continuation from the past. Neoclassicism comments on and messes with the forms of the past—like the messed-up Siciliana in the second movement of the ballet.

It also uses dissonance as a way to mess up traditional tonality a little bit. In the ballet, Stravinsky uses dissonance to change up the traditional harmony, or, a piece in which the dissonance is the basis of the piece rather than the exception. Ideologically, Stravinsky said that music was an object, leaving out emotion as a catalyst for composition. However, when listening to the ballet’s score, Stravinsky still seems to make emotional projection his main objective.

Essentially, Stravinsky takes much of what was made up traditional movements and forms, but then exaggerated them to a huge extreme to create his signature neoclassical compositions. Because of this method, it seems that Stravinsky was commenting on the constancy of certain traits in a form, the arbitrariness of these forms, and the stupidity of composers always following these traits without mixing it up and doing whatever they wanted. He seemed to still respect the form, but by exaggerating some things, and messing with the form himself, he seemed to both comment on the how composers in Baroque times didn’t feel free enough to mix up the traditional characteristics, but then mixes up the traditional characteristics himself.

Take a listen to the first movement.

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Have you ever heard any of Stravinsky’s ballet scores? Have you ever seen these ballets performed?