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Length: c. 15 minutes

About this Piece

The ballet Pulcinella (1920) was one of those collaborations among gigantic talents that seemed to have taken place repeatedly in the early years of the last century. The backstage cast included Igor Stravinsky (composer), Serge Diaghilev (producer), Pablo Picasso (designer), and Léonide Massine (choreographer). The conductor was Ernest Ansermet, and the dancers included Tamara Karsavina (who a decade earlier had created the title role in Stravinsky’s Firebird and the Ballerina in his Petrushka) and the Diaghilev company’s ballet master, Enrico Cechetti, who had danced in the world premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty in 1890 and who had been a primary teacher of Pavlova, Karsavina, and Nijinsky.

Hovering over them all was the benign spirit of the short-lived (1710-1736) Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, on whose music Stravinsky based his witty score — or so he thought.

With all that genius on one spot, however, nothing was likely to progress smoothly. Rehearsals began with a battle between designer and producer over the set, which Diaghilev rejected as being unsuited to the commedia dell’arte scenario. Picasso gave in and created one of the most celebrated designs in ballet history, a charmingly eccentric, faintly menacing view of a narrow, moonlit street, with Vesuvius crowning the Bay of Naples in the background.

Then came an even more alarming set-to between Stravinsky and Massine during an early piano rehearsal with the full cast. Massine, having been misinformed by Diaghilev, was under the impression that Pulcinella was being scored for full orchestra rather the 33 players specified by the composer. Massine therefore had created steps and gestures that were several sizes too large for their context. He, too, gave in — grudgingly.

Pulcinella was not only successful as a ballet, but proved a rich source for arrangements — and therefore somewhat of a cash cow — for Stravinsky, who used its numbers for four additional works. There were others, too, who mined Pulcinella for their personal musical needs, including the great Russian-born cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, who further arranged the Suite italienne (as Stravinsky called his own versions for violin and piano and for cello and piano) as a vehicle for himself and his friend and frequent collaborator, violinist Jascha Heifetz.

The numbers of the Piatigorsky arrangement, with their original composers in parentheses, are as follows: 1. Introduzione (Gallo); 2. Serenata (Pergolesi); 3. Aria (Pergolesi); 4. Tarantella (Gallo); 5. Gavotta con due variazioni (Monza); 6. Menuetto (Pergolesi) e finale (Gallo). — Herbert Glass