Igor Stravinsky – Pulcinella (ballet)

Posted on October 9, 2013


Igor Stravinsky “fell victim” to the charm of classical music, when he stumbled into a project initiated by the choreographer Léonide Massine and Sergei Diaghilev. Their intention was to bring to life the Neapolitan commedia del arte play Pulcinella in the form of a Ballets Russes production.

To understand the nature of this piece, I think it is important to look into the process of its creation, which was a teamwork of modern artists. According to the comprehensive research summarised in his volume Stravinsky’s Pulcinella: a facsimile of the Sources and Sketches Maureen A. Carr cites Massine describing his fascination for an open-air marionette theatre play of Pulcinella in Tuscany, Italy in 1914:“I was intrigued by their grotesque masks and their jerky, loose-limbed movements”. Diaghilev took up the idea and convinced Stravinsky to compose the music, working jointly with Massine and Pablo Picasso, the latter creating the costumes and stage design. The piece is essentially a collage, which is a technique widely used in cubist and other modernist visual design by Picasso and Braque. For this piece Stravinsky used musical material attributed to the enigmatic Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.

Stravinsky: Pulcinella – Scapino Ballet

In an interview on 31 January 1920 by André Rigaud, the composer Stravinsky stated “It is more than an adaptation, it’s a complete musical composition.” The musical fragments used are characteristic for the era, but not directly related to Pulcinella. Barry S. Brook’s research led to the currently accepted identification of the musical sources, partly composed by Pergolesi, but many of them falsely attributed to him. Pergolesi was an early eighteenth century composer linked to the Neapolitan court. During his short lifetime of only 26 years he composed mainly operatic works, concertos and sonatas for violin, flute and small orchestra and religious works. As his fame continued to ascend posthumously, many forgers fraudulently used his name, selling the works of less famous composers under the name of Pergolesi. Although at one point over 300 works were attributed to Pergolesi, only about 39 could be proven to have actually been composed by him.

The works used by Stravinsky are from vocal and instrumental genres such as Canzona, Aria, Cantata, Trio Sonata, Italian Sinfonia, Concerto and dances like the popular French dance Gavotte. Stravinsky wielded together 21 excerpts from these early musical pieces, reproducing some of them in their original from (e.g. Serenata, Gavotta, Tempo di minuetto), and re-composing others with a great deal of creative freedom (e.g. Presto, Tarantella and the Allegro Assai ending). The result is an enchanting piece of ballet music balancing the sweet-melancholic charm of early classicism and the expressive intensity of modernism.

Igor Stravinsky – Pulcinella (ballet) performed by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, conductor Stefan Sanderling,
Fiona Janes: soprano, Ian Bostridge: tenor, Henry Herford: baritone

In the following list of the musical miniatures included in the piece (as played in the musical clip included) I added the starting points of each part for easy reference:

1. Ouverture: Allegro moderato (Gallo: Trio Sonata I, 1st movement) 00:00
2. Serenata: Larghetto (Pergolesi: Il Flaminio. Act I. Polidoro) 02:10
3. Scherzino (Gallo: Trio Sonata II, 1st movement) 05:08
4. Allegro (Gallo: Trio Sonata II, 3rd movement) 06:47
5. Andantino (Gallo: Trio Sonata VIII, 1st movement) 08:05
6. Allegro (Pergolesi: Lo frate ‘nnammorato. Act I. Vanella) 09:40
7. Ancora poco meno (Pergolesi: Cantata: Luce degli occhi miei) 11:25 (Allegretto in the score)
8. Allegro Assai (Gallo: Trio Sonata III, 3rd movement) 13:46
9. Allegro (Pergolesi: Il Flaminio. Act I. Bastiano) 15:50
10. Largo (Pergolesi: Lo frate ‘nnammorato. Act III. Nina, Ascanio, Vanella) 18:14
11. (Allegro) (Pergolesi: Lo frate ‘nnammorato. Act II.) 21:40
12. Presto (Pergolesi: Lo frate ‘nnammorato. Act II.) 22:12
13. (Largo) (Pergolesi: Lo frate ‘nnammorato. Act II.) 23:10
14. Allegro alla breve (Gallo: Trio Sonata VII, 3rd movement) 23:42
15. Tarantella: Allegro moderato (Wassenaer: Concerto II, Chelleri: Concertino VI) 25:00
16. Andantino (Parisotti: Canzona) 26:09
17. Allegro (Monza: Harpsichord Suite No. 1) 28:40
18. Gavotta: Allegro moderato (Monza: Harpsichord Suite No. 3) Variazione Ia – Variazione IIa 29:37
19. Vivo (Pergolesi: Sinfonia for Cello and Basso) 33:30
20. Tempo di minuetto (Pergolesi: Lo frate ‘nnammorato. Act I. Don Pietro) 35:09
21. Allegro assai (Gallo: Trio Sonata XII, 3rd movement) 37:36

Taken altogether, the piece is built on a modern conception, framework and orchestration. It is scored for an expanded orchestra of 33 instruments. All these small musical pieces following each other give us a sense of permanent change. They seem to be placed in such a way to emphasise contrast between them, in terms of differences between tempo, tone colour, regular or irregular rhythms, and straightforward or complex tonality.

The content is represented by galant music, with modernistic alterations, which are sometimes as subtle as a few added dissonant notes to the triadic chords or a few measures of irregular rhythmic patterns (e.g. in the no. 4. Allegro). Transitions from one piece to another sound strange at times, due to unusual changes in tone colour (e.g. using the trombone at the end of no. 6 Allegro and no. 17 Allegro). Other pieces sound more like modern music, only vaguely resembling the source, like no. 8 Allegro Assai, with its irregular phrase structure, sudden dynamic and rhythmic changes, intensive, turbulent, disjunct melodies and a wide range of tone colour displayed in a short time. Also, no 15 Tarantella boasts with a very colourful orchestration, and in no 19. Vivo the original cello and basso concerto is completed with additional effects from the brass section and harsh glissando. This sounds raw and grotesque, but fits very well the action seen on the stage, a fight scene between four competing Pulcinella’s. There is frequent use of techniques like ostinato, glissando, pizzicato or staccato, uncharacteristic to the classical style.

The modern compositional techniques, together with the creative assembly of the musical material supports very well the storyline presented in the ballet, with added dramatic effect. The charming melodies, with their classical purity, the simplified geometrical design of the stage and costumes as well as an innovative and expressive choreography create a playful, slightly humorous-grotesque feeling, a piece of commedia del arte able to entertain and dazzle a modern audience.


Tibor Kovacs



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Rosen, C, (2005). The Classical style. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. 4th ed. Great Britain: Faber and Faber Limited

Lebrecht, N. (2000). The Complete Companion to 20th Century Music. 2nd ed. Great Britain: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd. 

Morgan, R. P. (1991). Twentieth-century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America. London: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd.

Carr, M. E. (ed.) (2010). Stravinsky’s Pulcinella: a facsimile of the Sources and Sketches. USA: A-R Editions, Inc.

Greenberg, R. (2011) How to Listen to and Understand Great Music. 3rd ed. United States of America: The Teaching Company

Stravinsky, I. (1920). Pulcinella. J. & W. Chester, London. Musical socre.

Wikipedia (2013) Pulcinella (ballet) [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pulcinella_%28ballet%29 [Accessed 02nd October 2013]

Wikipedia (2013) Igor Stravinsky (ballet) [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Igor_Stravinsky [Accessed 02nd October 2013]

Posted in: Part 4