Stravinsky – “Pulcinella”
Igor Stravinsky’s ballet in one act, “Pulcinella” (premiered 15/05/1920) can be thought of as the turning point in the composer’s career, when he adopted and started work in earnest on a new “neoclassical” period. Premiered in Paris in 1920, the music was based on work attributed to an eighteenth century composer, Giovanni Pergolesi, and Stravinsky went out of his way to retain much of Pergolesi’s style, avoiding overt modernisation and keeping the work bound to the forms that typified the work of the original Classicists.
Much of what he rediscovered in Pulcinella was further explored in future works such as his Octet for Wind Instruments and Symphony of Psalms.
Throughout the ballet we are introduced to a number of musical themes which provide background information and structure to the vocal parts laying out the story of Pulcinella and his friends and this allows us to immediately notice a trait of this newly-developed neoclassical style, that of comparatively short movements which suit the action on stage very well as the ballet unfolds, giving the performers the opportunity to tell the tale in an episodic manner.
The ballet opens with an overture which might have been taken straight from a piece from the early eighteenth century, offering no challenges, and continues into the Larghetto and the first vocal part (“Mentre l’erbetta”) which gives us the first indication at bar 62 that this is a modern composition, with two bars of chords from the strings which sit in discord with the tenor voice. Not enough to grate but still strong enough to arouse slight discomfort when set against the accepted and expected style of the first chapter. This unsettling technique is seen again in the Allegro assai after the Ancora poco meno (“Contento forse vivere” (soprano (13:11 in the video quoted below))) which immediately resolves itself into a charming interplay between the brass, woodwind and strings. It seems that Stravinsky can’t quite let go of the dramatic contrasts displayed in earlier pieces such as “The Rite of Spring”. This is an obvious departure from a purely “classical” technique as an eighteenth-century composer would seek to resolve discordant tension as soon as possible whereas Stravinsky tries to hold on to it and really push the point home.
In order to retain the feel of the classical period Stravinsky employs a number of devices that were frequently used by eighteenth century composers. These include ritornello (Italian: “little return”), returning repeatedly to a musical device or refrain which is immediately apparent (in this case) in the overture and which allows the listener to instantly recognise themes as we move through the piece, especially when allied with a second classical hallmark, that of tonality. Stravinsky offers the overture in G Major which was a popular key in both the baroque and classical periods, used extensively by Bach, Scarlatti, Haydn and Mozart.
Contrasting dynamics and ground bass are frequently at work in Pulcinella which helps us to align the piece with known quantities such as that of work by Mozart with which the listener would have been associated. This is displayed wonderfully (as mentioned above) at the transition between the Ancora poco meno section (“Contento forse vivere”) and the Allegro assai in which the horns and woodwind lead us to a soporific close, only to be shaken by twenty one aggressive chords immediately followed by that most dramatic of classical contrivances, the Mannheim Rocket in which the orchestra (or part thereof) plays an ascending broken chord or sequence, frequently in unison, with an increasingly fast dynamic.
In Stravinsky’s arrangement of the period pieces used he has been careful to retain such ornaments such as trills, pizzicato and crescendo and is scored for a periodically accurate chamber orchestra of thirty three musicians instead of a modern ensemble which would typically have more than ninety.
Alongside these period characteristics Stravinsky was able to exert such influences which would mark this opera as modern. These include minor alterations to the overtly classical triad chord formations such as the addition of scattered dissonant notes and occasional irregular phrase structure which catch the listener off-guard. Elements of the composer’s exposure to Jazz are intermittently discovered, most notably in the seventh “Vivo” section where we hear in the signature of the movement the slurring of the trombone triplet which is set against more traditional sounding strings until the introduction of a new theme (marked “brilliante”) which sounds like it was written by Aaron Copland in the 1940s.
Prokofiev – “Classical Symphony”
Prokofiev’s first major contribution to the neoclassical movement came with the premiere in April 1918 of his Classical Symphony (No. 1 in D major) which preceded Stravinsky’s Pulcinella by at least a year, making him a neoclassicist before Stravinsky (although Prokofiev didn’t follow the new movement as assiduously as his older contemporary).
It’s a short piece, travelling through four movements in around fourteen minutes and although Prokofiev composed almost exclusively in the tonal manner he did make use of dissonance but it was never in a bid to conform to atonality for the sake of modernism, Prokofiev only made one real excursion into atonality in his cantata “Seven they are Seven”.
The two areas which might give us a contrast when compared against the composers of the eighteenth century could be his willingness (like Stravinsky) to truncate the groups of phrases (to start another set of (for instance) four bars in the third bar) thus throwing us off-course. This can be heard very well in the second section of the Allegro (in the video quoted at 2:31) and throughout the rest of the first movement. He also avoids sticking to the tonic, dominant, subdominant structure which we so often see from the classical masters.
The first and last movements are in classical sonata form and the progression of the movements would be well suited to the output of an eighteenth century composer in their progression: 1 – Fast, 2 – Slow, 3 – Dance, 4 – Fast. The whole is reminiscent of Mozart (especially movements 1 and 4) and even more so of Haydn (by design) and it’s a lot more difficult to distinguish this as a modern piece when compared to Pulcinella.
These two composers have moved towards the same classical era with the same intent but with different approaches and with different outcomes.
Stravinsky was approached by Sergei Diaghilev with the express instruction to create a modern interpretation of a classical concept with a classical libretto. With this in mind he was to a certain degree constrained in what he could do, and the consequent result is astonishing. He gives us a satisfyingly accurate platform on which to imagine the story of Pulcinella.
Prokofiev had none of these constraints and could have gone in any direction which took his fancy. When composing his twenty-fifth opus his only requirement was that it was to be an exercise in composing without using a piano.
Stravinsky was, ultimately, arranging output from a range of earlier composers (albeit superbly) while inserting his own particular texture of chord and timing structure whereas Prokofiev was playing at emulating Haydn in a completely fresh work by using clichéd (but still useful and delightful) classical techniques purely for his own amusement. As previously mentioned, the Classical symphony was seen as a passing phase for Prokofiev, an experiment with no real end-game but for Stravinsky there was intent, and the influence that he came under from his mentor and tutor, Rimsky-Korsakov, along with the satisfaction gleaned from reviving and renewing music from an heroic era in composition left him feeling that this is where his future lay. Neoclassicism became the focus of his work for roughly the next thirty five years.