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Petrushka: Music & Analysis

Petrushka: Music & Analysis
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  • 0:00 ''Petrushka'': The Story
  • 0:51 The Music
  • 3:24 Chord & Tonal Ambiguity
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

The second of Stravinsky's three ballets written for the Ballets Russes, 'Petrushka' is a landmark and musically complex modern ballet. In this lesson, we'll talk about the story the ballet is based on and Stravinsky's innovative composition.

Petrushka: The Story

Petrushka is a ballet with music written by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. It was first performed in 1911 in Paris by the Ballets Russes. Stravinsky based his story on the iconic puppet Petrushka, a traditional character in Russian folklore who is often depicted as a jester or clown. Stravinsky's version of the story tells of three puppets brought to life by a magician. Petrushka, the wild, rebellious, and chaotic jester, falls in love with the Ballerina, but she only has eyes for the dashing, arrogant Moor. The Moor slays Petrushka in a duel, but Petrushks'a ghost reappears to haunt the magician who brought him to life only to face the anguish of unrequited love.

The Music

Petrushka is a harmonically and rhythmically complex composition that does not follow traditional rules of tonality that were in place before the twentieth century. It's based on a different type of musical scale than the standard major and minor scales that we generally hear in classical music. Also, it departs from the established rules by using polyrhythms and polychords. Let's look at these ideas one at a time.

Let's start with tonality. Traditional tonality has a set of established rules that govern pitch relationships. Petrushka is tonal in the sense that it has a pitch center (C), but it does not have the pitch relationships that would give us the traditional major or minor scales. Instead, Stravinsky uses what is called the octatonic scale.

The octatonic scale is a scale based on alternating whole steps and half steps, as opposed to the usual whole step and half step patterns of the major and minor scales. Let's take the key of C major. The pattern of whole and half steps for a major scale would give us C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. In an octatonic scale in C, the pattern of whole and half steps would be C, D, D#, F, F#, G#, A, B, C.

Also, Petrushka does not have the traditional tonic/dominant relationship found in tonal music. That tonic/dominant relationship refers to the first and fifth notes of the scale, and it's the relationship between those two notes that helps establish harmonic relationships in tonal music. Stravinsky replaces the dominant with a chord that we'll talk about later.

Another non-traditional technique that Stravinsky incorporates into Petrushka is the use of polyrhythms. A polyrhythm is the use of two or more conflicting rhythms played at the same time. For example, one musical line may be playing in 3/4 time (three beats to each measure), while another line plays 4/4 time (four beats in that same measure).

Petrushka features some very complex polyrhythms. Stravinsky applies the character of the puppet Petrushka to the music of Petrushka. Imagine a crazily dancing puppet, flailing about. The polyrhythms found in the music are meant to represent this.

Chord & Tonal Ambiguity

Another unusual aspect of Petrushka is Stravinsky's use of polychords. A polychord is a chord constructed from two or more separate chords played at the same time. For example, if you take a C major chord and a G major chord and stack one on top of the other:

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