Petrouchka + Tchaikovsky

Program Notes

FRI NOV 8, 8 pm | SAT NOV 9, 8 pm

LOUIS LANGRÉE conductor | GIL SHAHAM violin

JULIA WOLFE (b. 1958)

Fountain of Youth CSO CO-COMMISSION

TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 35

  • Allegro moderato. Moderato assai. Allegro giusto
  • Canzonetta: Andante—
  • Allegro vivacissimo

STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)


  • The Shrove-Tide Fair; The Magic Trick; Russian Dance
  • Pétrouchka’s Room
  • The Moor’s Room; Dance of the Ballerina
  • The Shrove-Tide Fair (Towards Evening)

What a joy to welcome back Gil Shaham to the CSO. Over 20 years ago I accompanied him for the first time in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. I will never forget this first time conducting alongside Gil, because his interpretation became a point of reference for me. We start this weekend’s concerts with a fantastic new work by Julia Wolfe titled Fountain of Youth. Julia’s rendering of the fountain of youth is a high energy musical setting through which you are to be transmuted and revived by the power of music. Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka envelopes us in the tragic tale of a magical street performer and his puppets. Stravinsky’s tale contains street dancing, raw human emotions, waltzes, magic and, finally, the death of the puppet Pétrouchka. In 1925 Stravinsky chose to conduct the original version of his own Pétrouchka for his CSO conducting debut.


Julia Wolfe

Born: December 18, 1958, Philadelphia

Known for:

Fountain of Youth CSO CO-COMMISSION

  • Work composed: 2019
  • Premiere: April 26, 2019, Miami Beach, Florida, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the New World Symphony at the New World Center.
  • Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. 3 piccolos), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, high hat, kick drum, medium tom-tom, 4 snare drums, splash cymbal, tam-tam, vibraphone, 4 washboards, harp, piano, electric bass, strings
  • CSO notable performances: These performances are the CSO premiere of Fountain of Youth.
  • Duration: approx. 12 minutes

Fountain of Youth was commissioned by the New World Symphony—America’s Orchestra Academy—and by Carnegie Hall, with additional support from a consortium of orchestras, including the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO commission made possible by Irwin and Melinda Simon); other orchestras in the consortium were Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony. The CSO is performing Fountain of Youth this weekend as part of its 125th Anniversary season commitment to presenting new works by American composers.

In the Composer’s Words

People have searched for the fountain of youth for thousands of years. The thought was that if you bathed in or drank from the fountain of youth you would be transformed, rejuvenated. My fountain of youth is music, and, in this case, I offer the orchestra a sassy, rhythmic, high energy swim.
—Julia Wolfe


Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Born: May 7, 1840, Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Major composer of the 19th century.

Known for:

  • Romeo and Juliet (1872)
  • 1812 Overture (1880)
  • The Nutcracker (1892)

Tchaikovsky is known for a composing a vital catalog of music. This is merely a tiny list of popular selections in comparison to the breadth of his work.

Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 35

  • Work composed: March 17–April 11, 1878, at Clarens on Lake Geneva, Switzerland
  • Premiere: December 4, 1881, Vienna, Hans Richter conducting; Adolf Brodsky, violin
  • Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
  • CSO notable performances: 39 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: January 1899, Frank Van der Stucken conducting; Willy Burmester, violin | Most recent: April 2016, Carlo Montanaro conducting; Sergej Krylov, violin | With these performances, each of the CSO’s 13 Music Directors has led the Orchestra in this work; among other notable performances, the Orchestra and violinist Janine Jansen played the Concerto on the CSO’s 2008 European tour, Paavo Järvi conducting. Other renowned violinists who performed the work with the CSO include Fritz Kreisler, Bronislaw Huberman, Zino Francescatti, David Oistrakh, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Midori.
  • Duration: approx. 33 minutes

One of the great violin concertos in the world, the Tchaikovsky is a universal favorite everywhere Western classical music is played. It may come as a surprise that even this work had to struggle to become accepted by players and critics.

From Early Rejection to a Great Masterpiece

There is certainly no shortage of great masterpieces that met with negative criticism at their premiere, but few have fared worse than Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. This may sound surprising, since this work, now one of the most popular of all concertos, has none of the revolutionary spirit of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Wagner’s Ring cycle or Beethoven’s Eroica, to name just three works that generated heated controversies around the time of their premieres. Yet there were some distinct ways in which the Tchaikovsky concerto clashed with the expectations of people who had very strong opinions about what a violin concerto ought to be like. The great violinist and teacher, Leopold Auer, for whom the concerto was written, rejected it. And the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, a friend of Brahms and a fierce opponent of Wagner, uttered the immortal phrase after the 1881 premiere that the concerto “stank to the ear.” The harshness and vulgarity of these opinions could not help but exacerbate Tchaikovsky’s depressive tendencies that were never far from the surface. The composer never forgot Hanslick’s diatribe to the end of his days.

Why this unusually strong resistance to a work that did not attempt to challenge the existing world order but wanted “simply” to be what it was: a brilliant and beautiful violin concerto? In Hanslick’s case, the answer may lie in the critic’s inability to accept symphonic music that was not Germanic in spirit. The first great violin concerto to come from Russia, Tchaikovsky’s work certainly struck a chord that was disconcertingly foreign in Vienna. (It is ironic that Hanslick thought of Tchaikovsky as a Russian barbarian, while in Russia, the composer was considered a “Westernizer” who was not as truly and completely Russian as Balakirev and his circle, known as the “Mighty Five.”) As for Auer, the novel technical demands of the piece may have seemed to him insurmountable at first; yet to his credit, he soon took a second look and changed his mind. He became a great advocate of the concerto, and taught it to many of his star students, whose list included Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz and Efrem Zimbalist.

The concerto was written in the spring of 1878. In order to recover from the recent trauma of his ill-fated and short-lived marriage to Antonina Milyukova, Tchaikovsky retreated to the Swiss village of Clarens, on the shores of Lake Geneva, accompanied by his brother Modest, and a 22-year-old violinist named Iosif Kotek, who assisted him in matters of violin technique. The composition progressed so effortlessly that the whole concerto was written in only three weeks, with an extra week taken up by the orchestration. During this time, Tchaikovsky wrote not only the three concerto movements that we know, but a fourth one as well: the initial second movement, “Méditation,” was rejected at an early runthrough and replaced with the present “Canzonetta,” written in a single day. Due to Auer’s initial unfavorable reaction, no violinist accepted the work for performance for three years, until the young Adolf Brodsky, a Russian-born virtuoso living in Vienna, chose it for his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic, so uncharitably described by Hanslick.

What to Listen For

One of the things that makes this concerto so great is surely the ease with which Tchaikovsky moves from one mood to the next: lyrical and dramatic, robustly folk-like and tenderly sentimental moments follow one another without the slightest incongruity, similarly to Tchaikovsky’s famous Piano Concerto No. 1, written three years earlier. Another remarkable feature is the combination of virtuosity with emotional depth: although the technical difficulties of the solo part are tremendous, every note also expresses something that goes far beyond virtuosic fireworks. All in all, it is one of the greatest violin concertos ever written, and no critic after Hanslick has ever challenged its status again or smelled anything unpleasant in the work!
—Peter Laki

Igor Stravinsky

Born: June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, near St. Petersburg, Russia
Died: April 6, 1971, New York

Known for:

  • The Firebird (1910)
  • The Rite of Spring (1913)
  • Petrouchka (1911)


  • Work composed: 1910–1911
  • Premiere: June 13, 1911, Paris, at the Théâtre du Châtelet (staged ballet) by the Ballet Russes, Pierre Monteux conducting; Michel Fokine, choreographer. Stravinsky revised the orchestration 1915–1946, and his final thoughts are known as the “Revised 1947 Version,” which is heard at these concerts.
  • Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (incl. bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, bass drum with attached cymbal, crash cymbals, 3 snare drums, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone, harp, celeste, piano, strings
  • CSO notable performances: 11 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: March 1925, Igor Stravinsky conducting | Most recent: November 2008, Paavo Järvi conducting (Paavo Järvi also led the Orchestra in a recording of the work in 2003) | Hugo Rignold led the Orchestra in a special performance of the complete ballet in October 1957 at Music Hall. Rignold had recently been appointed Music Director of London’s Royal Ballet, and he and the Company presented four ballets over three days: Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty Oct. 27–28, and Pétrouchka along with Malcolm Arnold’s Solitaire and Birthday Offering to music by Alexander Glazunov on Oct. 29
  • Duration: approx. 34 minutes

The second of Stravinsky’s three great Russian ballets, Pétrouchka is a landmark of early 20th-century music. Everything about it was unheard-of in 1911: the way a story is represented in ballet, a highly innovative harmonic language, and a startling juxtaposition of traditional and modern elements. More than a century later, the work has lost none of its visceral power and is as exciting and moving as on the first day.

A Russian Village Puppet-Show for Export

After the resounding success of The Firebird in 1908, Stravinsky became an instant celebrity in Paris. His name was now inseparable from the famous Ballets Russes, whose director, Sergei Diaghilev, was anxious to continue this most promising collaboration. Plans were soon underway for what eventually became The Rite of Spring. But events took a slight detour: in the summer of 1910, Stravinsky began writing a piece for piano and orchestra in which the piano represented for him “a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios.” The puppet was none other than Pétrouchka, the popular Russian puppet-theatre hero, the equivalent of Punch in “Punch and Judy” shows.

When Diaghilev visited Stravinsky in Lausanne later in the summer, he expected his friend to have made some progress with The Great Sacrifice (the working title of The Rite); instead, he found him engrossed in a piece for piano and orchestra. Diaghilev immediately saw the dramatic potential of Stravinsky’s concert piece, and persuaded the composer to turn it into a ballet. (The soloistic handling of the piano in the final version is a reminder of the original scoring.) Alexandre Benois, a Russian artist and longtime Diaghilev collaborator, wrote the scenario with Stravinsky, and designed the sets and costumes for the performance.

In traditional Russian puppet shows, Pétrouchka was, according to one description, “a devil-may-care oddball, a wisecracker and disturber of the peace.” As musicologist Richard Taruskin has pointed out, however, the hero of the ballet has little to do with that characterization. He is, rather, a reincarnation of the French Pierrot, the sad-eyed clown with a white face and wearing a white suit with large black buttons. The plot was not based on the Russian Pétrouchka plays but rather on the classical love triangle from the commedia dell’arte tradition from Renaissance Italy, involving Pierrot, Colombine and Harlequin (to use their French names, which are more relevant here). Yet in the first and last scenes, Benois re-created the atmosphere of the old shrove-tide fairs in Russia, a tradition he remembered from his childhood. The structure of the ballet, with two outer scenes depicting a Russian fair and two inner scenes representing a love story that transcends time and place, is more than a neat symmetrical device. It expresses a contrast between Russia and the West, between the public and the private spheres, and between the worlds of humans and puppets. Yet, as Taruskin writes:

…the “people”...are represented facelessly by the corps de ballet. Only the puppets have “real” personalities and emotions. The people in Pétrouchka act and move mechanically, like toys. Only the puppets act spontaneously, impulsively—in a word, humanly.

In composing the music of Pétrouchka, Stravinsky made use of an unusually large number of pre-existent melodies—either Russian folk music or popular songs of the time. These came to him from a wide variety of sources, ranging from the first scholarly collections of folk music, recorded with the then-new phonograph, to urban songs that were “in the air.” His treatment of these sources was far more radical, as far as harmonies are concerned, than it had been in The Firebird; especially in the second scene, “Pétrouchka’s Room,” we see significant departures from the techniques that Stravinsky had learned from his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov and that he had been following much more closely in his first ballet.

What to Listen For

The first of the four tableaux (“The Shrove-Tide Fair”) is shaped by an alternation between the noise of the crowd and tunes played by street musicians. At first we hear a flute signal accompanied by rapid figurations that evoke the bustle of the fair. Soon the entire orchestra breaks into a boisterous performance of a Russian beggars’ song, followed by the entrance of two competing street musicians, a hurdy-gurdy player and one with a music box. Of the two popular tunes, heard first in succession and then simultaneously, one is a Parisian street tune about the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt who had a wooden leg (Elle avait un’ jambe en bois—“She had a wooden leg”). This song, written by a certain Mr. Spencer, was protected by copyright, although Stravinsky didn’t realize this at the time of composition. As a result, he had to relinquish a percentage of the royalties from every performance of Pétrouchka for the author of the song or to his heirs. The other song was a well-known Russian melody, sometimes set to bawdy lyrics, that Stravinsky remembered from his youth.

The competition of the street musicians suddenly stops and the beggars’ song returns as a general dance. The signal from the beginning closes the first half of the tableau. Now the puppet theatre opens, and the Showman, playing his flute, introduces Pétrouchka, the Ballerina, and the Moor to the audience. As he touches them with his flute, the three puppets begin the famous “Russian Dance” in which the piano plays a predominant part. The irresistible force of this passage lies in the varied repetitions of short rhythmic figures and simple melodies harmonized with repeated or parallel-moving chords. The dance has a lyrical middle section where the same melody is played more softly by the piano, accompanied by the harp and winds. Finally, the loud version returns; the dance and the tableau end with a bang.

The second tableau starts with the sonority that has become emblematic of the work: two clarinets playing in two different keys at the same time. After a short piano cadenza, we hear a theme giving vent to Pétrouchka’s anger and despair at his failure to win the Ballerina’s heart. His fury suddenly changes into quiet sadness in the following slow pseudo-folksong, played by the duo of the first flute and the piano with only occasional interjections from other instruments. The Ballerina enters, and Pétrouchka becomes highly agitated. Then she leaves, and the earlier despair motif closes the tableau.

The third tableau takes place in the Moor’s room. His slow dance is accompanied by bass drum, cymbals and plucked strings, whose off-beat accents impart a distinctly Oriental flavor to the music. The melody itself is played by a clarinet and a bass clarinet pitched two octaves apart. Soon the Ballerina comes in (“with cornet in hand,” according to the instructions), and dances for the Moor as the brass instrument plays a rather simple tune accompanied only by the snare drum. She then starts waltzing to two melodies by Viennese composer Joseph Lanner (1801–1843, a forerunner of the great Strauss dynasty), while the Moor continues his own clumsy movements (for a while, the two melodies are heard simultaneously). The waltz is abruptly interrupted as Pétrouchka enters to motifs familiar from the second tableau. His fight with the Moor is expressed by excited runs that, like Pétrouchka’s earlier music, are “bitonal” in the sense that the same melodic lines are played in two keys at the same time. The orchestra plays some violent, repeated fortissimo chords as the Moor pushes Pétrouchka out the door.

The fourth and last tableau brings us back to the fair, where, as the evening draws closer, more and more people gather for the festivities. A succession of numbers is performed by various groups taking turns at center stage. A group of nursemaids dances to the accompaniment of two Russian folk-songs which, according to a technique we have encountered earlier, are heard first in succession and then simultaneously. Next, a peasant enters with a bear that dances to the peasant’s pipe (the pipe is represented by the shrill sounds of two clarinets playing in their highest register). After this, a drunken merchant comes in: his tune is played in unison by the entire string section, with frequent glissandos, against a motley succession of ascending and descending runs in the woodwinds and brass. Two Gypsy girls perform a quick dance whose melody is given to the oboes and the English horn, with harps and plucked strings in the background, and then both the merchant’s tune and the Gypsy dance are repeated. 

The Russian folksong of the coachmen and stable boys comes next, scored mainly for brass; that of the nursemaids, which began the whole scene, returns on clarinets and bassoons. The coachmen’s dance is taken over by the full orchestra, only to be suddenly displaced by the mummers, who, in their funny masks, jest and dance with the crowd to some loud and highly rhythmic music in which the brass predominates.

Suddenly the celebration is disrupted by a scream coming from the side of the theatre. Pétrouchka rushes in, pursued by the Moor who soon overtakes him and strikes him down. The two clarinets, whose dissonant intervals have followed Pétrouchka throughout the piece, emit a final piercing shriek that fades away in a pianissimo as the hero expires. Some soft woodwind solos, accompanied by high-pitched violin tremolos, lament Pétrouchka’s death. But as the Showman arrives to pick up the puppet and take him back to the theatre, Pétrouchka’s ghost appears overhead as a piccolo trumpet intones his melody in a tone that is aggressive, mocking and menacing at the same time. There are only a few string pizzicatos as the curtain falls; the last event in the piece is the resurgence of Pétrouchka the invincible, thumbing his nose at the magician and at the entire world, which had been so hostile to his pure and sincere feelings.
—Peter Laki