About this Piece
Length: c. 27 minutes
Orchestration: flute (= piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, timpani, percussion (bell, tenor drum, rattles, tambourine, tam-tam, xylophone), harpsichord, harp, strings, and solo singers
First performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Manuel de Falla built his own marionette theater as a child - preferring it to a magnificent one his parents bought for him - and provided it with repertory, sets, and music of his own creation. This interest later made him a natural connection for the Princess Edmond de Polignac, one of the period's great arts patrons, who commissioned a theater piece from him in 1919 for her own elaborate puppet theater. (Her other commissions included Stravinsky's Renard and Satie's Socrate, although neither of those works had its premiere in her private theater.)
After much thought, Falla decided to set an episode from Cervantes' Don Quixote which actually depicts a puppet play. He wrote his own libretto, cutting and splicing from chapters 25 and 26 of Part II. In this episode, the Don and Sancho Panza are staying at an inn, where Master Peter's puppet theater is playing in the courtyard. Their subject is the medieval legend of how Don Gayferos, a knight at Charlemagne's court, freed his wife Melisendra from captivity by the Moors. Master Peter calls the audience to attention, and then the play is presented in six concise scenes, each introduced by the trujamán, a boy herald. Don Quixote and Master Peter interrupt with complaints about the boy's narration, and in the final scene, as the Moors chase the escaping couple, Quixote charges the stage and attacks the puppets with his sword, like a miniature version of the wind mills episode. Taking the gallantry of Don Gayferos as an example, Quixote sings of his own love for Dulcinea and of the glories of knight-errantry.
Falla's original plan for the Princess' theater was a two-tiered, play-within-a-play approach - large puppets representing Quixote, Master Peter, and the others in attendance, and small figures for Master Peter's puppets. The three singers would be with the orchestra in the pit, rather than onstage. After a concert performance cum dress rehearsal in Seville in March 1923, that is how it was performed with the Princess' puppets in the music room of her Paris estate in June that year, with Vladimir Golschmann conducting. Hector Dufranne sang Quixote, Wanda Landowska played the harpsichord (Falla composed his Harpsichord Concerto for her in appreciation), Ricardo Viñes and Emilio Pujol were among the artists and musicians serving as stage hands, and the audience included Picasso, Stravinsky ("a mouse among she-cats," according to the reporter for El Sol), the poet Paul Valery, and the artist José Maria Sert.
For the music, Falla borrowed themes from the Baroque guitarist Gaspar Sanz, the 16th-century organist and theorist Francisco Salinas, and Spanish folk traditions, in addition to his own evocative inventions. His scoring, for a small orchestra featuring the then-unfamiliar sound of the harpsichord, was lean, pungent, neo-classical in a highly personal and original way, and pointedly virtuosic. Falla toured the piece quite successfully all over Spain with the Orquesta Bética, a chamber orchestra he had founded in 1922 as an ensemble of soloists.
Indeed, Master Peter's Puppet Show was a great success for Falla, with performances and new productions all over Europe within a few years of the premiere. In 1926 the Opéra Comique in Paris celebrated Falla's 50th birthday with a program consisting of La Vida Breve, El Amor Brujo, and Master Peter's Puppet Show, with new designs by Falla's close friend Ignacio Zuloaga, and new marionettes carved by Zuloaga's brother-in-law, Maxime Dethomas. For this production singers and extras replaced the large puppets, and Falla and Zuloaga took part personally, the painter as Sancho Panza and the composer as the innkeeper.
- John Henken