Puppet Drama

‘Shrovetide Fair’ from ‘Petrushka’ by Stravinsky

by Stravinsky


Petrushka is a ballet suite, which was premiered in 1911 in Paris.  It tells the story of 3 Russian puppets, brought to life by a charlatan during the 1830 Shrovetide fair.  Petrushka is in love with the ballerina, but she prefers the Moor.  Tensions rise between the puppets and at the end of the ballet the Moor kills Petrushka.  The fair-goers are horrified but the showman reminds them that they are just stuffed dolls.  As night falls, the charlatan drags Petrushka’s limp body off-stage and is startled to see the ghost of the puppet standing on the roof.  The audience are left wondering whether the puppets really were alive…

There’s a full synopsis on Wikipedia.

Listen For:

There are so many things to listen out for in this piece. Here we’ll focus on 2 main elements:

  1. Use of Russian folk tunes

It was quite usual for composers to borrow folk songs, and here Stravinsky uses the White Russian Easter carol (from figure 3 – 7 in the score on the video).  However, his treatment of the old tune was quite unconventional – 2 different variations of the song are heard in 2 different instrument groups at the same time, with 2 different pulses!

  1. Montage technique

In ‘Petrushka’, Stravinsky pioneered a new compositional technique called montage.  It is a bit like musical film-editing.  In the opening scene you can hear a bustling fair scene, where many events are happening simultaneously: the audience can watch sellers, street entertainers and revellers enjoying the atmosphere.  Stravinsky cleverly composed a musical collage where all the conflicting musical elements come together to create a lively backdrop.  Imagine a camera lens panning across the fair, then focusing in on a street performer, then panning out again only to zoom in on a stall holder, for example.

Stravinsky composed at the piano, orchestrating his music at a later stage. The orchestra for Petrushka includes a piano and celeste, which adds to the magical, mysterious atmosphere.

Composer, Pierre Boulez describes Stravinsky’s collage technique as a mosaic with different individual colour blocks making up the bigger picture.

By listening to the music (not watching the ballet) can you imagine where and when different things are taking place?  It might help to think of the camera lens moving about.

Things To Consider:

How would you go about creating a busy musical scene, e.g a Christmas fair?

Could you explore using Stravinsky’s montage technique to musically capture all the action?