Tuesday, August 08, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 042: Stravinsky/Monteux/Columbia SO: Petroushka

Before I ever found Larry “Guitar” Baeder, or Dean Magraw, or Mike Bierylo, or Tom Binkley, or Dave Baker, or any of my other great teachers, LP’s were my first teachers. And—like my teachers—records seemed to find me when I needed them.

One of the greatest moments in 20th century music, and certainly the greatest moment in the greatest ballet ever written, and certainly the greatest musical moment in my life before the conservatory: First Tableau (“The Shrovetide Fair”) in Stravinsky’s 1911 Petroushka, when the polytonal hustle and bustle of the Russian peasant crowd suddenly coalesces into the magnificent pedal-point polymeter of the circus troupe that includes the Old Wizard, the Ballerina, the Moor, and the title character, the mournful, happy/sad post-commedia dell arte clown called Petroushka.

This was the role that Nijinsky was born to dance. He had scandalized Parisians with the eroticism of his Faun in Debussy’s Prelude and changed the language for the prima danseur in Debussy’s Jeux, but nothing in his past career had prepared anyone for the intensity of his Petroushka—as nothing would prepare anyone for the revolution he, with Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and Roerich, would concoct with Le Sacre du Printemps. Certainly the “Rite,” of the three Russian ballets, is conventionally regarded as the real watershed—but Petroushka is the harbinger, and here’s why: the Rite was consciously intended as a confrontation; as a subversion of everything that went before; of a direct assault upon the 19th century’s fixation on chromatic harmony, complex formal structure, and toxic self-absorption—and it succeeded. But that also led to a “shock for shock’s sake” aspect to the Rite.

That’s not the case with Petroushka. In that work, Stravinsky gets as close to Bartok—and Bartok’s unself-conscious assimilation of traditional music’s rhythmic and modal implications. It’s the most folkloric of Stravinsky’s ballets and, actually, far more influential in the long term than the Rite. Throughout the 20th century, composers from Bartok to Janacek to de Falla to Ives would explore the possibilities of developing a personal—but cool—modern compositional language out of the implications of folk music. Dvorak had told us to do it (“you have in the melodies of the Negroes all the resources you need for a great national music”); Vaughan Williams had shown that it was possible (in numerous pieces based upon the modal and melodic implications of English folk music); even Debussy and Ravel had found a way around the Viennese hegemony of Brahms and Mahler by going to other sources: popular music, old French music, and “exotica” from around the world. Stravinsky, who was notoriously resistant to any attributions of influence—he had way too big an ego—nevertheless succeeded, as he always did, in drawing on the new ideas most pregnant with possibilities.

And it’s so beautiful. There is so much love in this music—for the Russia he left behind, for the folk musics he learned as a child (hilarious anecdote he told in his autobiography about hearing a moujik on the family estate playing fart-noises in his armpit), for the people that he left behind. At different stages in his career, Stravinsky made entirely contradictory statements about the presence or absence of Russian elements in the Rite, depending upon whether he was pissed at the Soviets for taking away the ancestral estates or sucking up to them when they treated him like a returning hero.

It’s a dark, sad, story, picking up on the Expressionist fascination with clowns that played out in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, and their close cousin, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. In Stravinsky’s version, Petroushka is a sad, sawdust-stuffed clown, ensorcelled by the Wizard, but pining perpetually for the Ballerina, who has eyes only for the Moor.

The score is full of the hyper-diatonicism Stravinsky had derived from his Russian forebears—chiefly Rimsky—and which had provided a way to both retain the flavor of folk music and up the dissonance ante. In 19th century German music, the solution had been to stuff more and more chromatic alterations into the functional harmonic language. What the Russians, the Eastern Europeans (especially Bartok and Janacek), and Ives had figured out was that you could retain the shape and character of modal folk tunes, but create a powerfully dissonant language, by juxtaposing instruments or groups playing in different key areas simultaneously. That meant that one section would play, more-or-less diatonically, in one key, and another in another key, and the relationship between the keys (close or distant) would determine the level of harmonic “crunch.”

It’s potent in Petroushka (and overpowering in Le Sacre), because Stravinsky builds it into the very fabric of the characters’ themes: the “Petroushka chord” combines two triads, harmonically distant from one another (a C major triad and an F# major triad), either of which could work in a perfectly vanilla way—but juxtapose them, play them simultaneously, overlap them, trade them off with one another, and you have an astonishingly flexible range of dissonant options.

It has different meanings in different places, because the dissonance can be dark or light, crashing or fluid. And it does throughout this piece: the hustling hurly-burly of the crowds at the Shrovetide Fair in the First Tableau; the brutality with which the Wizard exiles Petroushka to his cell and the lonely sadness with which he responds in the Second; the stomping brutality of the Moor in the Third; and the return to the hustle of the Fair in the Fourth and final Tableau.

The story ends, actually, with horror: Petroushka interrupts the Moor’s seduction of the Ballerina, and the Moor chases him into the market-square and hacks him to pieces with an axe; but the Wizard demonstrates that he is nothing but sawdust and straw. At the very last moment, after the Wizard’s departure, and the apparent defeat of all Petroushka’s hopes—and shockingly—the ghost of the puppet appears on the roof of the market-building, uttering one last fortissimo, spiky, bitonal chord: one last curse for the Wizard, a and for the complacency of an audience that would let it happen.

But it doesn’t matter; the music is so beautiful. There were a half-dozen or so LP’s that I owned as a child, things I found either in our family collection (a weird amalgam of mostly unpredictable and not-very-good stuff) or, peculiarly enough, at yard sales. I was kind of fascinated by the idea that you could find interesting music that other people liked—and I was already well-programmed to be obsessive about saving money. So used records were perfect for me (I would only have had to be a little bit more neurotic to wind up as much of a record- and comic-collecting weirdo as Harvey Pekar or Robert Crumb).

But the universe looked out for me, I guess: one summer, around the age of around 11, at a yard sale in my home town, I found LPs of Petroushka and of Beethoven’s #3 (Eroica). The Stravinsky was a Columbia “Living Stereo” release of the 1947 version. Here’s the miracle: the disc cost me a quarter, and it was conducted by Monteux, who conducted the premieres of both Petroushka and the Rite. Other conductors have led more impressive or more impeccable or more astringent performances (certainly Nagano and Boulez have both done commanding versions), but Monteux conducted the premiere. How much more immediate and visceral an understanding of the work’s original intent could you have?

I played that record—and the Beethoven—on a virtually daily basis for a good eight years. And I imprinted on it, the way you will, the way I did on Live at Fillmore East, and Born to Run, and a few others. Even now, 35 years later, I can teach these pieces with total passion, totally from memory, and as if I’m discovering them for the first time. I can still sing the opening passage and nail Monteux's opening tempi for all Four Tableaux. I still remember the Gauguin painting on the cover, and the clicks and pops at crucial moments, and the ways those records (and a few others, and a few books) helped make sense of my world.

And “The Shrovetide Fair” still makes the hairs on my neck stand up.

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