Beyond The Strings of Petrushka

Tessa Mitchell, Chris Chouiniere
  • Author
    Tessa Mitchell

    Tessa Mitchell is currently working in higher education as an Academic Counselor within the community college setting. Her previous work experience includes 7+ years combined of roles in government, human services, and K-12 education. Tessa has earned a Master of Arts degree in Applied Sociology (University of Alabama, Birmingham), a Bachelor of Arts degree in Gender Studies w/concentration in History, Society & Inequality (California State University, Stanislaus), and an Associate of Arts degree in English Literature (Modesto Junior College).

  • Instructor
    Chris Chouiniere

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

Learn about ''Petrushka'' a ballet composed by Igor Stravinsky. Find out about the clowns, puppets, and famous Russian dance, and study an analysis of the ballet. Updated: 08/25/2022

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What is Petrushka about?

Petrushka is a Russian ballet and a piece of orchestral concert music created by composer Igor Stravinsky. The story of Petrushka centers on a love triangle involving three puppets, brought to life by a Charlatan (a magician) at his puppet theater during the 1830 Shrovetide Fair in St. Petersburg, Russia. The puppets are: a clown named Petrushka, a beautiful Ballerina, and a handsome Moor. The main character, Petrushka the clown, is in love with the Ballerina. However, the Ballerina only has affection for the Moor and does not reciprocate the same love for Petrushka. The ballet moves along by following the interactions between the three puppets. First, we see the Ballerina scared out of Petrushka's room by his overwhelming outbursts. Then we see the Ballerina dancing romantically with the Moor in his room, only to be interrupted by a rage-filled Petrushka. Petrushka then tries to attack the Moor but is defeated. The Moor proceeds to chase Petrushka out of the room and onto the stage for the final scene. The chase ends with the Moor killing Petrushka with his blade in front of everyone. Upon the death of Petrushka, the police question the Charlatan. The Charlatan holds up the body to remind everyone that Petrushka is just a puppet and no crime has been committed. As the Charlatan exits the scene, he visualizes the ghost of Petrushka above the theater, prompting him (and the audience) to question what is real and what is fantasy.

Petrushka received its world premiere with a run time of 34 minutes on June 11, 1911, at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, France. Igor Stravinsky is known as one of the leading composers of the 20th century. At the time of Petrushka, Stravinsky already had several pieces that had achieved notoriety. However, Petrushka specifically brought a more comprehensive blend of design, music, and dance together that would stand the test of time as an acclaimed work.

Russian Dance in Petrushka

In the first scene, the audience is treated to one of the most notable dance performances of the piece. Set at the St. Petersburg fair, outside the Charlatan's puppet theater- the Charlatan begins to play a flute and the puppets magically come to life, quickly breaking out into an energetic Russian dance in the middle of the fair.

This Russian dance performance was based on the old Russian folk songs, "A Linden Tree in the Field" and "Song for St. John's Eve." Stravinsky was in his "Russian period" of style during this time frame and was heavily inspired by the artistic influence of the region. This was also a point in time where Modernism was finding its way into the art movement, with Stravinsky demonstrating this by incorporating traditional Russian folk dancing with his innovative take on the music composed for the piece.


Tamara Karsavina as the Ballerina (Petrushka, 1911)


Petrushka's Instrumentation

Different instruments were used for different versions of the performances, first in 1911 and then in 1947.

1911 (The Original Version):

  • Woodwinds- 4 flutes, 4 oboes, 4 clarinets, and 4 bassoons.
  • Brass section- 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in B, 2 cornets in B and A, 3 trombones, and 1 tuba.
  • Percussion- Timpani, bass drum, cymbals, 2 snare drums, tambourine, tenor drum, triangle, tam-tam, glockenspiel, xylophone, piano, celesta, and 2 harps.

1947 (The Revised Version):

  • Woodwinds- 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 cor anglais, 3 clarinets in B, 2 bassoons, and 1 contrabassoon.
  • Brass section- 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in B and C, 3 trombones, and 1 tuba.
  • Percussions- Timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, tam-tam, xylophone, piano, celesta, and harp.

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Rhythm of Petrushka

The rhythm used in Petrushka goes outside the parameters of what the traditional tonality for classical music of the time was. The tonality in Petrushka, which is the set of rules that dictates the pitch of a tone, specifically deviated away from how major and minor scales were being used at that time. Instead, Stravinsky used what is called the octatonic scale, which is based on an eight-note scale of alternating whole and half steps. Stravinsky also utilized a technique called polyrhythm, which is the use of two or more rhythms that conflict at the same time. For example, one line of music will be played simultaneously with another, creating a unique harmony. This technique was widely applied through the character of Petrushka, who would often be flailing about on stage, needing a more chaotic sound to accompany the emotions of the character.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of character is Petrushka?

Petrushka is an awkward, abrasive, and chaotic character. His movements are often frantic, and he is described as "flailing" his body around on stage. As a character, he is meant to convey an array of human emotions such as love, jealousy, rage, and fear within the plot of the story.

What is the story of Petrushka?

The story of Petrushka is about a Charlatan (magician) who brings to life three puppets at a street fair. The three puppets are a Ballerina, a Moor, and a clown named Petrushka. Petrushka falls in love with the Ballerina, but the Ballerina loves the Moor instead- creating a love triangle with a fatal ending.

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