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Discovery of the Past

"Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course – the first of many love affairs in that direction – but it was a look in the mirror, too.” 
– Igor Stravinsky
There is arguably no composer who better understood the concepts of image, branding and PR than old Igor, who not only reinvented himself several times but also tried very hard (and generally very successfully) to revise his own history.

The quote above is a great example. Reading it, one wouldn’t necessarily think that Stravinsky at first flatly turned down the request to essentially rewrite music by the 18th century Italian composer Pergolesi*, let alone proclaim the experience to be such a transformative one. What changed his mind was Pergolesi’s* scores, which the Ballet Russes impresario Diaghilev diligently tracked down in London and Naples. Something in this music not only inspired Stravinsky to take on the job, but – as his quote might indicate – changed him and his output for many years to come.

While it’s possible that Diaghilev was initially just trying to cut costs – producing a ballet made up of arrangements of pre-existing (out of copyright) music would be cheaper than a brand new commission – the impact it had on Stravinsky was undeniable. Throughout his life he couldn’t leave the piece alone. He reworked the ballet into a suite 2 years later, which he later revised twice, and he even revised the original ballet score in the 1960s. That’s without even mentioning the three versions of the Suite Italienne – based on music from Pulcinella. 

The Pergolesi* scores Stravinsky worked from were little more that a selection of pieces for various instrumentations. Stravinsky’s role could, at its simplest, have been as arranger. Indeed, the second half of the quote at the top of the page is often left out: “No critic understood this at the time, and I was therefore attacked for being a pasticheur, chided for composing ‘simple’ music, blamed for deserting modernism...” In truth, perhaps it was his fear of this that led to his initial refusal of the job.

And yet, in writing the ballet, Stravinsky found a way to superimpose his voice and his music over the top of Pergolesi’s* – in some cases quite literally. In his manuscript you can see his meticulously scored in punctuations, interruptions and variations on Pergolesi’s* music (you can see many of these manuscripts in this amazing book. Pulcinella is Stravinsky wearing a ruff, trying to pass for an 18th century Italian, and in doing so emphasising the differences between himself and the past. By adapting this music, he was able to look at all music in a new way. It was the reinvention of Stravinsky as a Neoclassicist.

* Most of this music was probably not actually written by Pergolesi, but by lesser known composers such as Domenico Gallo, Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer and Carlo Ignazio Monza. Indeed, a lot of their work may have been attributed to Pergolesi because people had actually heard of him, in hopes it would help the sell the music. Some things never change...

Listen to the Pulcinella Suite on Primephonic.