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            Stravinsky’s reputation as one of a handful of the most respected and influential composers of the twentieth century has been secure almost from the beginning of his career.  Yet, as he grew older, the bold changes in the nature and sources of his musical style stand as almost unique among his peers.   We may speak of Brahms’ or Tchaikovsky’s “style,” and although both certainly showed clear evidence of musical growth from youth to maturity, most folks have a rough idea of what any particular composition by either of them may sound like.  Sure, Beethoven, went through his stylistic “periods,” but his artistry evolved from beginning to end more or less as a continuum of advancing growth and mastery in a coherent personal voice.  Not so, with our Stravinsky.   The fundamental conceptual and technical basis for his compositions underwent distinct and radical changes as he moved from one “period” to another, from youth to old age.  His smashing early successes with the ballets, The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring stem from Russian nationalism, were followed shortly by a more severe, experimental style around WWI.  By about 1920 he turned to neo-classicism, which dominated his approach until around 1950, followed by more experimental changes until the last decade of his life, during which he astounded all by adopting a personal approach to twelve-tone and serial procedures.  The latter style, of course, had been championed by Schoenberg and his followers for almost half a century, but certainly not Stravinsky—until he did!  He cheerfully confessed to his musical “kleptomancy.” The real Stravinsky wore many guises, but they all represented a unique musical genius, who regardless of style and labels, always shone through as perhaps the singular composer of the century.

            Pulcinella stands at the beginning of the major shift in his musical thinking that occurred a few years after the end of WWI.  It was a marked departure from the works that had secured his reputation, and a harbinger of the new, spare style that looked back to the music of the eighteenth century for many of its precepts.  When art has “gone about as far as it can go” in one style, it simply flops over into something radically different.  And that is roughly what happened to the works of late romanticism, with their extended tonality and growing length—to name only a few traits that simply suffered little further evolution.  This is as true of Stravinsky’s three early ballets as it is of, say, Mahler’s symphonies.  Hemlines go up, and then they go down.  Representational art is followed by abstract art, and then by representation again.  Simplicity and complexity always seem to alternate.

            In 1920 Stravinsky was living with his family in Switzerland, in difficult financial straits, and in the midst of a deep quarrel over contracts with the great impresario of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev—his collaborator in the big early successes.  About this time, Diaghilev had found some music in the Naples Conservatory supposedly by the baroque composer, Pergolesi (1710-1736).   We currently know that many of the attributions were incorrect—but it really doesn’t matter, now.  The upshot was that Diaghilev more or less made peace with Stravinsky by commissioning him to compose a brief ballet based on these short works.  Stravinsky wasn’t sure that he wanted the project, but finally assented, and responded with a score that was a startling throwback to the simple, graceful harmonies and rhythms of almost two centuries earlier.  Picasso provided stage and costume designs, based upon a re-interpretation of old, traditional Italian themes, and the choreographer did likewise, using eighteenth-century ballet steps.  Stravinsky preserved much of the nature of these old pieces, simply adding some pungent harmonies here and there, displacing the beats, and orchestrating them with a distinctly modern feel.  But, all in all, the winsome, conservative, and charming result was a far cry from what the world then knew as Stravinsky.  What is more, the startling simplicity of Pulcinella clearly was a harbinger of the composer’s major shift into what would be called “neo-classicism.”   He stayed with the approach for decades, melding concepts from two different centuries into a personal style.

            Pulcinella (the name is that of Punch or Polichinelle from seventeenth-century Neapolitan commedia dell’arte) was given its première in Paris in May of 1920, with the orchestra suite receiving its first performance two years later by Monteux and the Boston Symphony.  It opens with a little “sinfonia,” essentially a miniature overture, and perhaps the most well known of the movements.  After a “serenata”—a graceful interpretation of the traditional siciliano rhythm—there follows a scherzo in two brief contrasting parts.  The tarantella is a vivacious Neapolitan dance (said to ward off the effects of a tarantula bite) that leads right into the “toccata.” Toccatas customarily are instrumental showpieces and this one features the winds, especially the two brass players, ending with a “blat” from the trombonist.  The Gavotta is our friend from the Bach orchestra suite, with the usual accents—although this one is unusually pastoral in nature.  After two variations the brass noisily start the “Vivo,” which doesn’t last long, but is interesting for the “scratchy” solo in the double bass, and notorious for the constant rude interruptions from the trombone—smearing away in a most un-classical style.  The Horns and bassoons begin the graceful minuet, which includes an elegant solo in the trombone, but as it approaches the end, Stravinsky’s modern harmonic tendencies come to the fore, as some pungent dissonances prepare the arrival of the finale.  It’s a scurrying mad dash, familiar to those who know Histoire du soldat, from about the same time.   All in all, it’s easy to understand the positive reception accorded Pucinella in Paris at its première; it was tuneful, unassuming, imaginative, and a new breeze in music for the times.  It remains so today.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan