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Monday 21st January, 2019

Pulcinella: A Mirror to the Past

Stella Joseph-Jarecki explores the historical context of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella, which premiered in 1920 at the Paris Opéra. The concert suite taken from the ballet was performed by the Weiss Chamber Orchestra directed by Dale Barltrop at National Music Camp 2019.


The creation of Pulcinella (1920) came about through Igor Stravinsky’s fruitful collaboration with Serge Diaghilev, the impresario who established the legendary Ballet Russes dance company. The Ballet Russes was founded on a principle of artistic collaboration, bringing together artists, composers and dancers to create vibrant works which both enthralled and shocked audiences in the early 20th century. Unusually for the time, the Ballet Russes regarded the design of the set and costumes as being of equal importance as the choreography itself. Vibrant costumes made from luxurious fabrics became a trademark feature of the productions, with the style of the costumes even influencing fashion trends in Paris.

Before Pulcinella, Stravinsky’s works for the Ballet Russes included The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). After seeing the passionate response elicited by these works, Diaghilev was eager to involve the composer with another production. A number of his ballets had been set in exotic lands or in the world of folklore; the impresario now decided to refresh the direction of the company and ground the next production in a specific historical period. This prompted choreographer Léonide Massine to suggest a ballet inspired by the Italian theatre tradition of commedia dell'arte. Commedia dell'arte translates as ‘comedy of the art’, and was a style of slapstick improvised comedy based on a series of stock characters and plots, particularly popular from the 16th to 18th century.

In order to transport the audience to this period, Diaghilev wanted the ballet to be based on the music of Giovanni Pergolesi. Pergolesi was an Italian composer who lived from 1710-1736, and whose best-known works include his Stabat Mater. Stravinsky was initially reluctant to arrange the music of Pergolesi, but quickly became enamoured it once he had studied the scores.

In his collection of material, Diaghilev included pieces which were attributed to Pergolesi, which have since been discovered to have been written by other composers. These pieces included trio sonatas by Domenico Gallo and keyboard suites by Ignazio Monza, a Milanese priest.

The poster used at the premiere of 'Pulcinella'

The full score of Pulcinella consists of 19 dance numbers. Operatic arias based on the music of Pergolesi are scattered throughout the score, for three soloists. However, Stravinsky subsequently created the suite from Pulcinella for orchestra only. Unlike the large symphonic forces Stravinsky used in his previous scores, Pulcinella is scored for a modern chamber orchestra, perhaps in an attempt to evoke the sound of the classical ensembles of Pergolesi’s time.

Stravinsky saw his work arranging the music of Pergolesi as his “discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of [my] late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course— the first of many love affairs in that direction— but it was a look in the mirror, too.”

The storyline of the ballet was taken from a manuscript dating from the 18th century, which contained several stories starring the character. This particular plot, called the Four Identical Pulcinellas, saw three characters dress up as Pulcinella in an elaborate scheme of mistaken identity and light-hearted revenge. The ballet ends happily with Pulcinella betrothed to his girlfriend Pimpinella.

One of Picasso’s set designs for 'Pulcinella', and Léonide Massine pictured in costume as one of the Pulcinellas

Pulcinella premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1920, with set and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. Stravinsky described it as "one of those productions where everything harmonizes, where all the elements ― subject, music, dancing, and artistic setting ― form a coherent and homogeneous whole." The ballet suite has gone on to become one of Stravinsky’s most frequently performed works.

One of Picasso’s costume sketches for 'Pulcinella'