It is difficult to believe from seeing and hearing Petrushka that this ballet was the result of a collective creative impulse. Rather does it seem as if a single super-genius, equally gifted in music, art, painting and choreography, had conceived, devised, and staged this ballet. [quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 661]Quite a bit has been written about how a confluence of events led to the wonderful symbiosis between Stravinsky and Diaghilev and indeed, the whole team that Diaghilev assembled for the Ballets Russes. Other factors were the death of Rimsky-Korsakov, which freed Stravinsky from too much influence from that tradition, and also the death of Diaghilev's chief sponsor, the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, which led to the loss of a crown subsidy and therefore to the replacement of very expensive opera productions with much cheaper ballet productions. But it is hard to underrate the enormous benefit to Stravinsky's career that came from working with the Ballets Russes. And likewise hard to underrate how much less the impact of the Ballets Russes would have been without The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Renard, Pulcinella, Mavra, Apollon musagète and a few others.
The very success of the work leads one to overlook the messiness of its origins. For one thing, it was the first time that Stravinsky, in Lincoln Kirstein's words, "made music, not to serve dance, but to control it." [op. cit. p. 662]
Petrushka is the main character of the Russian folk puppet theater, a staple of 19th century popular culture. This character has very old origins as witnessed by the flourishing of puppet showbooths in the Russian Shrovetide Fair, which preserves a number of traditions from ancient Slavic festivals. The Russian Petrushka is roughly cognate with the Italian Pulcinella and the English Punch, all of whom share the same typical features: a humpback, a hooked nose, a squeaky voice, a cudgel, a bell, a pointy hat and baggy trousers. Stravinsky's original vision was of a piano Konzertstück with the pianist being a kind of Petrushka figure. In the final ballet this figure is transformed into the more tragic figure of Pierrot.
Stravinsky's first sketches date from September 1910 and were conceived originally as instrumental pieces, not intended for a ballet even though one was a dance. As soon as Diaghilev heard the music he wanted to turn it into a ballet with the aid of a scenario by Benois, a peerless connoisseur of the Shrovetide carnival. Even though Stravinsky minimized Benois' role in his later memoirs, his importance is reflected in the credit given in the score:
Benois' basic idea was to have the love triangle of Petrushka, the Ballerina and the Moor framed by an evocation of the Shrovetide fair in a "symphony of the street." In order for this to work, the traditional burlesque figure of Petrushka had to be transformed into Pierrot, the ever-hopeful, but always disappointed lover. Taruskin cites many literary forebears and references in, especially, French and Russian, two poems in particular by Alexander Blok, that describe the outer and inner worlds of Harlequin (Pierrot).
One of the biggest transformations of the traditional roles of the characters is that Petrushka is typically the one killing and maiming while in the ballet, he is killed by the Moor--this idea originated with Stravinsky. It was Benois, on the other hand, that suggested the use of percussion to connect the scenes; this was the traditional way for the puppeteers to attract an audience.
I think this is enough introduction for today. Let's watch and listen to a production of the ballet. This is a film of a recreation of the original production by Andris Liepa and the Bolshoi Ballet: