Pulcinella Suite

Igor Stravinsky

Pulcinella Suite

About this work

As is well known, Stravinsky fashioned his ballet, Pulcinella (1919-20) after music of Giambattista Pergolesi (1710-36). He was originally not enthusiastic about using such source material but acquiesced to the wishes of the persuasive impresario Serge Diagilev. In the end, the composer drew on some Trio Sonatas, three operas--Lo Frate ‘nnamorato, Il Flaminio, and Adriano in Siria--and other works of Pergolesi. The character Pulcinella was taken from a 1700 manuscript featuring various comic episodes. The ballet was a great success at its May 15, 1920, premiere, and in 1922 Stravinsky decided to extract a Concert Suite, scoring it for the same chamber-sized ensemble. He made minor revisions to the Suite in 1949.

The original ballet score featured eighteen numbers, whereas the Suite is comprised of eight. The latter's third movement, however, has three sections, and the eighth, two. Thus, the reduction is far less than half: a typical performance of the ballet music would last around forty minutes, and that of the Suite about twenty-five. The vocal parts from the original score, found in the second and eighth movements of the Suite, were eliminated by Stravinsky, their music being assigned to various instruments.

The first movement of the Suite, the Sinfonia, is the most famous. It features a confident, ebullient theme, used for years by Martin Bookspan to introduce his radio program. The rhythmic verve and harmonic twists of this Neo-Classical music is nearly as compelling as the distinctiveness of the theme. The Serenata, that follows, features the lovely tenor solo (taken from Il Flaminio), but is here given to the oboe and other instruments. The third movement is comprised of a Scherzino, Allegro and Andantino, each divulging much color and, once more, great rhythmic interest. The first two sections are based on material in Pergolesi's Trio Sonata II and the third on the Trio Sonata VIII.

Thus far the five sections correspond to the first five in the ballet. The next, however--the Tarantella--relates to the twelfth movement in the ballet, and is thus based on Pergolesi's Trio Sonata VII. The Toccata, that follows, corresponds to the fourteenth and, like the Tarantella, features quite jovial music, again with infectious rhythms. The Gavotta con due variazoni and the Duetto, are the counterparts to Nos. 15 and 16 in the ballet score, and the latter features the most humorous music in the score.

The last two sections here, Minuetto and Finale relate to the penultimate and closing movements in the ballet. The Finale features a short rhythmic theme that has also become popular. It sounds as Stravinskyan as any music in the ballet, which might suggest that the composer wanted to cap this heavily-derived score with his individual touch.

Each movement here features different combinations of instruments, as in the ballet score. There has long been discussion regarding how much of the music in Pulcinella is Pergolesi, and how much is Stravinsky. However musicologists answer the question, there is little doubt that even if the music belongs to Pergolesi, the masterpiece belongs to Stravinsky. The composer would go on to write other works along this same line, including Le Baiser de la Fée (1928), after Tchaikovsky.

The first performance of the Pulcinella Concert Suite came on December 22, 1922, with Pierre Monteux conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra.