By Sam Bergman, viola and host of Inside the Classics
When Sarah Hicks and I started the Inside the Classics series all the way back in 2007, we made two rules for ourselves. The first was that we would never feature a piece of music that we weren’t both utterly passionate about. The second was that we wanted to send our audiences out the door in a state of total euphoria; the educational component of the series was important, yes, but our main goal was to have a lot of fun and take everyone in the room along for the ride.
Given those rules, it’s no surprise that the composer we’ve turned to the most often over the years has been Igor Stravinsky, that master of dark humor, musical innovation and visceral connection to audiences. Stravinsky’s Firebird was the piece that launched Inside the Classics, and we tackled his Rite of Spring just three years later. This February, we finally complete Stravinsky’s early ballet trilogy with Petrushka, and we couldn’t be more excited to bring it to you. While Petrushka may not be as ubiquitous as Firebird, and didn’t cause fistfights at its premiere like the Rite, Sarah and I agree that, as a pure work of symphonic mastery, it might be the best thing Stravinsky ever wrote.
The story of Petrushka centers around puppets who come to life in a Russian town square, and it’s full of darkly disturbing imagery and, frankly, some character arcs that would be correctly called out as problematic today. We’ll be getting into that at the February 16 concert, but also discussing the absolute musical revolution that was going on across Europe during the decade when Stravinsky was churning out hit after hit for the Ballets Russes. This was the decade of World War I, and it marked the end of German/Austrian dominance in the realm of concert music, as musicians from France to Russia and beyond looked to “cast off the German influence,” in the words of The New Yorker’s Alex Ross.
Beyond its place in the historical timeline, though, Petrushka stands apart from all other music that was being written at the time. As German composers were still drawing on the legacies of Wagner and Brahms, and France’s homegrown favorites looked to musical impressionism to distinguish themselves, Stravinsky stood utterly apart, creating street scenes out of conflicting layers of music which should sound chaotic, yet somehow coalesce in our ears. Where other composers commissioned to write for the ballet would think first of the dancers themselves and the limitations of the human body, Stravinsky penned driving, earthbound themes and rhythms so complex that the ballet masters would have to stand in the wings shouting the beats at the dancers during the performance.
But in the end, what makes Stravinsky’s ballet scores, and Petrushka in particular, so remarkable isn’t that they were fiendishly difficult in their day. After all, any composer can write music too hard to play if they don’t care whether it ever is played. What separates Stravinsky is that he was utterly convinced that he was writing music for the next generation of musicians and listeners, rather than his own – and he was exactly right. What was once on the edge of the avant-garde is now a concert hall staple, and today’s composers still reckon with its legacy. We’ll reckon with it, too, on February 16. I hope you’ll join us.