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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 Aristocratic Maximalism
Richard Taruskin

Maximalism had been a crucial component of that conquest, and would remain high on the list of Ballets Russes priorities. Successes needed to be topped. And so the next season, 1911, Diaghilev produced a new Stravinsky ballet, in hopes of topping Firebird. His hopes were not in vain. Success was even wilder. And although the primary impetus this time had come from Stravinsky, the history of the project and its outcome revealed even more decisively the essentially collaborative nature of the Diaghilev enterprise.

While finishing up the score of Firebird, Stravinsky had an idea for a sequel: a primitive sacrificial rite in which a virgin danced herself to exhaustion and death before an idol of Yarilo, the ancient Slavic sun god. The idea was not particularly original: the Russian version of symbolist poetry was rife with images of pre-Christian antiquity (which in Russia had lasted until 988 ce), and there were many attempts to foster, in the words of the poet Vyacheslav Ivanov, a new mythological age. “Poets,” another Russian symbolist wryly observed, “wore themselves out trying to roar like wild animals.”21 Neoprimitivism, the quest for a modern style through evocations of prehistory, was the primary engine then driving Russian artistic maximalism. Stravinsky was merely buying in.

Before beginning the new ballet, however, Stravinsky wanted to “refresh himself,”22 as he put it in his autobiography, by writing a funny concert piece for piano and orchestra that would spoof the antics of a romantic virtuoso. It would take the form of a “combat between the piano and the orchestra,” according to an interview Stravinsky later gave a French reporter, in which “a man in evening dress, wearing his hair long, … sat himself at the piano and rolled incongruous objects up and down the keyboard, while the orchestra burst out with vehement protests, with sonic fisticuffs.”23 He composed the piece in September 1910.

Afterward, casting about for a title, Stravinsky noticed that some of the searing trumpet blasts he had composed were reminiscent of the kazoo-like instrument that produced the shrill voice of Petrushka (Little Pete), the “Punch” in the Russian “Punch and Judy Show” or fairground puppet theater—a character who, like Stravinsky’s mad piano player, was “always in an explosion of revolt.” Armed with a cudgel, he would beat up anybody in sight. The skit always ended with his being dragged off to hell by a big black dog. Delighted with the idea, Stravinsky changed the title from “Pièce burlesque” to Krik Petrushki (“Petrushka’s shriek”) and wrote a companion piece based on a few jottings he had already made for the “sacrifice ballet” he had envisioned before starting the concert piece.

These two little pieces for piano and orchestra made for a fascinating contrast. The one that now came first was a madcap puppet dance based on two Russian folk tunes (one from his teacher’s anthology, the other from a more recent and “scientific” collection that contained the melodies only, without any artistic embellishment). The second, the original concert piece, was a study in “octatonic maximalism” in which the harmonic language of Rimsky-Korsakov’s fantasy operas (exemplified both in Ex. 3-8 from Kashchey the Deathless and in Ex. 2-28 from Sadko) and already maximalized by Ravel in his Rapsodie espagnole (Ex. 2-32) was extended and distorted into a brusquely dissonant idiom of which Rimsky-Korsakov might well have disapproved.

But when Diaghilev, visiting Stravinsky later that fall, heard the two pieces, he was struck not only by the contrast but also by the way both of its elements “maximalized” features of Firebird that had proven to be so appealing to his fashionable Paris audience. He immediately envisioned Stravinsky’s pieces within a ballet based on the Russian Shrovetide fair, where the puppet theaters flourished. He talked Stravinsky into promising to write the rest of it, and then talked Benois in to providing a scenario. In the end, Stravinsky and Benois were Petrushka’s parents, but Diaghilev had been the matchmaker.

Benois’s ballet combined the puppet-theater and fairground ambience with a love triangle adapted from the old commedia dell’arte as revived in the nineteenth century by the French funambules or acrobatic mimes: Pierrot (the sad clown) loves Columbine (the ingenue) who loves Arlecchino (the happy clown). Benois recast these roles in terms of the fairground theater: Petrushka himself (transformed from manic Punch into plaintive Pierrot), a ballerina puppet, and an African puppet or “blackamoor.”

The two-tiered action unfolds in four scenes. The outer scenes or tableaux show the fairground and its revelers, with the first scene culminating in a “Danse russe,” namely the first of Stravinsky’s piano-and-orchestra pieces, which now accompanies the three puppets dancing before the crowd. The inner tableaux present the love triangle. The second scene, corresponding to the original concert piece, takes place behind the scenes in Petrushka’s quarters: the puppet, secretly alive, laments his fate of subjugation to the puppet master and unrequited love.

The third takes place in the blackamoor’s quarters, showing the blackamoor and the ballerina happily in love until Petrushka stormily intrudes. At the end of the final tableau, the two male puppets burst out of their quarters into the public square and battle to the death. Many actual Petrushka-plays ended with Petrushka killing a blackamoor; this one ends with the Blackamoor killing Petrushka, so that the title character, like Pierrot, can attract the public’s sympathy. The puppet master, summoned by a policeman, shows the crowd that they have been fooled into thinking his wood-and-straw puppets were alive. But at the very end, after the crowd has dispersed, the ghost of Petrushka appears atop the puppet booth and jeers the frightened puppet master. The audience (in the theater, that is) is left not knowing what to think “real.”

As in Firebird, the plot is a wild mixture of sometimes incongruous objects presented to the French—and accepted by them—as authentically Russian. The music maintains and further maximalizes the fantastic/realistic opposition long traditional in Russian opera, and already maximalized in Firebird. Once again the human element (the crowd in the outer tableaux, the puppets appearing before the crowd in the “Danse russe”) is represented by diatonic folklore, and the nonhuman (the secret world where the puppets live) by Rimskian chromaticism based on circles of major and minor thirds, that is, symmetrical divisions of the octave by three or four semitones.

But this time the musical contrast, like the poetic contrast it reflects, is treated with a wily irony: the “people” in Petrushka, with only negligible exceptions, are represented facelessly by the corps de ballet. Only the puppets have “real” personalities and emotions. The people in Petrushka act and move mechanically, like toys. Only the puppets act spontaneously, impulsively—in a word, humanly. Although based on musical echoes of everyday life, the outer (“human”) scenes in Petrushka are transformed into something far removed from everyday reality by Stravinsky’s magic-making orchestration, which at the beginning evokes an all-enveloping accordion (garmon’ or garmoshka in Russian; see Ex. 3-14) and replaces it for the “Danse russe” by a cosmic balalaika. However varied and inventive, the orchestration of the outer tableaux is rarely without some overlay suggestive of street music.


ex. 3-14 Igor Stravinsky, Petrushka, opening of first tableau, street-vendors’ cries against a steady hum of accordion music

Add to that the extraordinary and unrelieved simplicity of much of the crowd music, quite the boldest and most subversive stroke of all, given the musical climate that reigned during the maximalistic decades we have been investigating. For pages at a time (e.g., the page shown in Ex. 3-15) the Danse russe proceeds with an absolutely unvarying pulse, with nearly flat dynamics, and (almost unbelievably) with nary an accidental nearly half a century after Tristan und Isolde.

This strict diatonicism was of course a way of characterizing the vaunted purity of Russia as against the decadence of “Europe”—a surefire means of impressing the French. But still, to achieve such freshness with such simplified means, and with no hint either of monotony or of unsophistication—this was surely Stravinsky’s most startling achievement in the “human” tableaux of Petrushka. It brought neonationalism—the fashioning of “authentic” modernity out of folk tradition—to what seemed an unsurpassable creative peak.

But now contrast the puppets’ secret world, the world of Petrushka’s second scene. That scene, the only one to have been written before the “Konzertstück” or concert piece for piano became Petrushka, is the only one to be virtually devoid of allusion to folk or popular music of any kind. The sole hint of it comes three measures before the end, in some wheezing concertinalike chords in the muted horns and bassoon, marked “très lointain” (from very far away)—a distant echo from the street, added to the score after the scenario had been planned. The music moves fitfully, impetuously: in 110 bars of music there are sixteen changes of tempo. The volume is in constant flux as well, the harmony intensely chromatic and dissonant. In short, this music, now associated with puppets, is “expressive”—that is, human—with a vengeance. In its ceaseless ebb and flow, its waxing and waning, it analogizes the inner world, the world of passions and feelings with their onsets and abatements.


ex. 3-15 Igor Stravinsky remnants of the piano “Konzertstück” in Petrushka, “Danse Russe,” fig. 43

Although the folk and popular elements in Petrushka are abundant, chosen shrewdly and lovingly, and handled with novel resourcefulness and skill, they are so obviously a part of the “outer world,” so much a part of what is questioned and derided in this profoundly antirealistic “symbolist” ballet, that there is no cause for wonder that certain representatives of the older traditions of Russian musical nationalism (in particular, and very painfully for Stravinsky, the surviving members of Rimsky-Korsakov’s family) took offense at the work and its creator. But Stravinsky was nothing if not faithful to Rimsky’s legacy as he understood it.

This can best be seen precisely where the score is at its most maximalistic, in the novel treatment of harmony and tonality that made the second tableau of Petrushka for a while the ne plus ultra—the last word—in modernism. Not a single one of Stravinsky’s apparent innovations lacked a precedent in the music of his teacher and his fellow pupils. Yet there was a difference: past a certain point quantity determines quality; a sufficient difference in degree can amount to a difference in kind. The point that Stravinsky passed, and that Rimsky-Korsakov (and even Ravel in the Rapsodie espagnole) had always skirted, was the point at which “octatonicism”—reference to a governing scale of alternating tones and semitones—became not just a color or an exotic accessory to more conventional tonal harmony, but a tonality in its own right.

In “Chez Pétrouchka,” the concert piece for piano and orchestra that became the second tableau of Stravinsky’s second ballet, an octatonic collection is maintained as a stable point of reference governing the whole span of the composition, whatever the tonal vagaries or digressions along the way. The collection is thus raised structurally to the level of what we ordinarily mean by a “key,” governing a hierarchy of pitches and providing a tonal center. It establishes not only a vocabulary of pitches, but also a set of stable structural functions. Hence departures from it and returns to it—on various levels, from that of local “chromaticism” to that of “modulation”—are possible without compromising its role as stable point of reference. The octatonic collection-of-reference is a far more stable referent within “Chez Pétrouchka” than any of the transient diatonic tonalities with which it interacts as the piece unfolds. The composition is thus not only a significant one within its composer’s stylistic evolution, but also an important benchmark of early twentieth-century maximalism.

The collection of reference in “Chez Pétrouchka” is the whole-step/half-step scale that includes the C-major and F♯-major triads, which, when superimposed, produce what has become universally known among musicians as the Petrushka-chord (see Ex. 3-16). Now just as Wagner’s Tristan-chord was not the first half-diminished seventh chord in history, neither was the Petrushka-chord unprecedented. Ravel had anticipated it in both Jeux d’eau and Rapsodie espagnole (see Exx. 2-26 and 2-32); Richard Strauss had anticipated it in Elektra (1-17b), and even Maximilian Steinberg, a less famous pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, had used it in a memorial prelude for orchestra in honor of their teacher (and the passage including it had been borrowed from an unpublished sketch by Rimsky-Korsakov himself, shown in Ex. 2-30). There is even a fleeting occurrence of the Petrushka-chord near the beginning of Firebird.

It is clear, moreover, that Stravinsky conceptualized the chord just as Ravel and Steinberg had done, as a subset of the octatonic collection; for when the chord reappears, along with Petrushka himself, at the end of the third tableau (see Ex. 3-16), it is transposed so that it now mixes the triads of E♭ and A, exhausting the collection of reference by featuring its remaining (complementary) pair of /0 3 6 9/symmetrical “nodes.” Thus the C and F♯ triads are not an arbitrarily selected “bitonalism,” but rather one of many expressions of an octatonic tonality that pervades the whole composition on many levels. In this sense it was for Stravinsky nothing new.


ex. 3-16 Octatonic derivation of the Petrushka-chord

And yet again there was a significant “maximalizing” difference. In Ravel, Strauss, and Steinberg, the two chords are made to blend into a generalized sonority. Stravinsky makes them stand boldly out from one another. The F♯ is deliberately made to sound like a foreign element jostling the key (or at least the chord) of C major. This conflict is implied in many ways. In the first place, C major has been cadentially established as the tonic in mm. 1–8 (Ex. 3-17). Not that the cadence that establishes it has been an ordinary one. There is no conventional dominant triad, since almost all the pitches in the passage are selected from the octatonic scale of reference, and no pair of fifth-related chords can be so selected. Instead, C major seems to be selected from among the four potential tonics the scale provides along its /0 3 6 9/nodes: C, E♭, F♯, and A. Indeed, in m. 7, the dominant seventh on E♭ rather ceremoniously defers to C, its defining tones E♭ and D♭ resolving by half steps (that is, as leading tones) to E and C.

Having noted this much, let us look now at the way in which “nonharmonic” tones—that is, tones not referable to the “scale of reference”—are treated. In Ex. 3-17 all such nonreferable tones are circled. They are all resolved to “structural” pitches according to the most ordinary schoolbook techniques, either as passing tones or, in the case of the chord preceding the French sixth in m. 4, as neighbors, complete (D–E♭) or incomplete (G♯–A, B–C♯). Particularly noteworthy is the B natural on the downbeat of m. 6. Its strong rhythmic placement reinforces its function as an imported leading tone (as it might function, more ordinarily, in the key of C minor). Although its resolution to C is indirect, since its position in a chromatic stepwise descent is alone what justifies its intrusion within an octatonic context, it nevertheless reinforces the contributions of the other half-step resolutions (F♯–G, D♯–E) to what is in weak but sufficient effect the tonicization of C in mm. 7–8.

At the passage marked the “Malédictions de Pétrouchka” (“Petrushka’s curses”), the Petrushka-chord accompanies (or contends with) a piercing melody in the muted trumpets that insists for five measures on a pure C-major arpeggio (Ex. 3-18). Note, too, that during the piano cadenza that leads up to it (Ex. 3-19), the C-major, but not the F♯-major, component of the Petrushka-chord is licensed, as it were, to import its dominant into the texture, lending it a truly structural function as against its “opponent’s” inert “pedal” quality. Thus it seems clear that Stravinsky regarded the two triadic subsets of the Petrushka-chord as independent functional agents, potentially (and at times actually) in conflict. It is fair to speak of the passages in which they contend as being “bitonal,” or (as Stravinsky himself always described it) as consisting of “music in two keys”—so long as we bear it in mind that the keys in question were chosen from among the circumscribed and historically validated wares of the time-honored (and specifically Russian) octatonic collection.


ex. 3-17 Igor Stravinsky, Petrushka, second tableau (“Chez Pétrouchka”), mm. 1–8


ex. 3-18 Igor Stravinsky, Petrushka, “Malédictions de Pétrouchka”


ex. 3-19 Igor Stravinsky, remnants of the piano “Konzertstück” in Petrushka, “Chez Pétrouchka,” fig. 50

Finally, this interpretation of the Petrushka-chord, as an “active polarity” rather than a passive blend, suits the “poetic concept” and the action of the ballet, where the chord is called upon to accompany outbursts of painful emotion arising out of conflict among the characters. The chord only makes poetic “sense” if we regard the first section of the tableau as being in the key of C. This in no way contradicts the suggestion that the tonality underlying “Chez Pétrouchka” is essentially octatonic rather than conventionally diatonic. For just as a diatonic composition by Ravel or Rimsky-Korsakov might be “flavored” with octatonic condiments, so an octatonic conception may interact with familiar diatonic elements. To see how “deep” octatonicism may be expressed through “surface” diatonicism we need only cast an eye on the end of the tableau: a cadence (Ex. 3-20), just as pronounced as the one in Ex. 3-17, but now establishing F♯ as tonic. Thus the tritone (/0 6/) polarity between C and F♯ not only exists within the work in the local vertical conjunction that has become famous as the Petrushka-chord, but is also extended in the temporal dimension to govern the overall tonal trajectory of the music.


ex. 3-20 Igor Stravinsky Petrushka, cadence establishing F-sharp as tonic at end of second tableau

The tritone, moreover, as the midpoint of the octave, is found in every symmetrically apportioned scale. Thus it is a subset of both the octatonic and the whole-tone collections, between which it represents a nexus and a potential modulatory pivot. This dual function of the tritone also finds expression at the surface of the music in the immediate succession of keys that links the C-major opening of the work with its F♯ major conclusion. The Adagietto that follows Ex. 3-18 is centered on D and carries a signature of two sharps, while the music following the Adagietto has E as its center. (For fourteen measures, in fact, the key signature of E minor is explicit.) Thus the sequence of tonal centers forms an ascending octave-bisecting whole-tone progression: C–D–E–F♯. Taking the octatonic collection as a whole as the “tonic” of “Chez Pétrouchka,” we can view the interaction between the octatonic and the exclusively whole-tone elements in the sequence of tonal centers as a departure-and-return scheme associated with the “binary form” and its many derivatives since the seventeenth century. The vocabulary has changed, and changed radically; the syntax, however, has remained familiar, enabling that new vocabulary to communicate a coherent and intelligible tonal message.


ex. 3-21 Igor Stravinsky remnants of the piano “Konzertstück” in Petrushka, “Chez Pétrouchka,” 4 after fig. 58 (“Petrushka’s despair”)

For maximum effectiveness, as we have long known, a departure-and-return trajectory needs a Far Out Point. Look now at the climactic moment marked “Petrushka’s despair” (Ex. 3-21). The texture consists of a cadenza shared by the first clarinet, the solo piano (by now firmly identified with the title character), and the English horn, over a sustained harmony played first by the trumpets and cornets in B♭, then (when it quiets down) by a quartet of solo cellos.

That harmony is a diminished seventh chord. Comparison with Ex. 3-7 will show how strategically that chord has been selected: it consists precisely of the four “circled” pitches (B, D, F, A♭) that are foreign to the octatonic “collection of reference” that governs the whole composition—or, more specifically, that furnishes it with its point of departure and eventual return. A position of maximum distance from what we might call the tonic matrix—in short, a FOP—has been deliberately assumed.

Not only is this point the extreme point of the tonal trajectory; it is also the most dissonant moment in the piece, hence the most poetically expressive. The clarinet cadenza (notated for an instrument in B♭) consists in the main of arpeggios on another diminished seventh chord (C♯, E, G, B♭) that clashes maximally with the sustained harmony and complements its “foreignness” to the original tonic matrix, since the only pitches now absent from the texture are those of the remaining possible diminished seventh chord: C, E♭, F♯, A. And these, of course, are precisely the roots of the four triads presented in Ex. 3-16 as the potential tonal centers within the governing collection of reference.

The climax of the clarinet part, marked lamentoso assai and clearly meant not only as a musical but also as a dramatic climax, at once represents the limit of dissonance and the limit of tonal distance. And even more than that, it is the one moment in the piece that sounds genuinely “atonal” in the sense that its constituent harmonic elements, diminished seventh chords, are harmonies without any single identifiable root. Hence none can function as a tonic in common practice. Despite the novelty of his materials, Stravinsky is deploying them in ways that make long-accepted musical sense. In fact, the novelty of the materials is being exploited to intensify the experience of these common syntactical relationships and make them new again. That is precisely what is meant by maximalism: the radical intensification of means toward traditional expressive ends.


fig. 3-4 Vaslav Nijinsky in the role of Petrushka.

Owing in part to Stravinsky’s brilliant success in achieving those expressive ends while at the same time maintaining a proper musical “grotesquerie” in keeping with the puppet theme, and in part to the superb performance of the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1890–1950) in the title role (especially impressive because male dancing had long been in seemingly irrevocable decline outside of Russia), Petrushka was taken seriously—by “serious” artists and critics—as no ballet had ever been taken before. “C’est très à la Dostoevsky”24 (Just like Dostoyevsky!) was the consensus in the theater. Sarah Bernhardt, the great French tragedienne, said after seeing Nijinsky, “I’m very afraid: I’ve seen the greatest actor on earth!”25 Dame Edith Sitwell, an English poet of the avant-garde, who caught the show in London, wrote: “Before the arrival of the Russian ballet in England, the average person had never dreamt that movement could convey a philosophy of life as complete and rounded as any world could be.”26 Echoing Benois, who must have felt a sense of triumph on reading her words, she declared that

these bright magical movements have, now the intense vitality of the heart of life, now the rigidity of death; and for speech they have the more universal and larger language of music, interpreting still more clearly these strange beings whose life is so intense, yet to whom living, seen from the outside, is but a brief and tragic happiness upon the greenest grass, in some unknown flashing summer weather.

Finally, Sitwell found universal meaning in the wordless spectacle she had observed:

We know that we are watching our own tragedy. Do we not all know that little room at the back of our poor clown’s booth—that little room with the hopeful tinsel stars and the badly-painted ancestral portrait of God? Have we not all battered our heads through the flimsy paper walls—only to find blackness? In the dead Petrouchka, we know that it is our own poor wisp of soul that is weeping so pitifully to us from the top of the booth, outside life for ever, with no one to warm him or comfort him, while the bright-colored rags that were the clown’s body lie, stabbed to the heart, in the mire of the street—and, with Claudius [the guilty king in Shakespeare’s Hamlet], we cry out for “Lights, lights, more lights.”27


(21) Korney Chukovsky, Futuristï (1922); quoted in I. V. Nestyev, Prokofiev, trans. Florence Jonas (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1960), p. 91.

(22) Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1936), p. 31.

(23) Florent Fels, “Un entretien avec Igor Stravinsky à propos de l’enregistrement au phonographe de Pétrouchka,” Nouvelles littéraires, 8 December 1928; François Lesure, ed., Stravinsky: Études et témoignages (Paris: Éditions Jean Claude Lattès, 1982), p. 248.

(24) Yakov Tugenhold, “Itogi sezona (pis’mo iz Parizha),” Apollon (1911), no. 6: 74.

(25) Charles Hamm, “The Genesis of Petrushka,” in Igor Stravinsky, Petrushka, ed. Hamm (Norton Critical Scores; New York: Norton, 1967), p. 12.

(26) Edith Sitwell, “The Russian Ballet in England,” in The Russian Ballet Gift Book (London, 1921); rpt. in Petrushka, ed. Hamm, pp. 187–88.

(27) Ibid., p 189.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003008.xml