Klavier Festival Ruhr
zur deutschen Version English language selected Petruschka
Genesis and première
From Russia to Western Europe

Petrushka is the first work that Igor Stravinsky composed outside his native Russia. The convoluted genesis of the ballet reflects the young composer’s migratory life in the years leading up to World War I.

The spectacular première of The Firebird at the Paris Opéra on June 25, 1910, made Stravinsky world-famous over night. Surprised and intoxicated by the huge success of his first ballet, the 28 year old composer returned to Russia only to set out for Paris once again a few days later. This time, however, he traveled with his family. In early July, when he attended the final performance of The Firebird in its first season, his wife Katya was at his side.

Stravinsky quickly decided to spend not only the summer months but the following winter in Western Europe. First he and his extended family traveled to the seaside resort of La Baule in southern Brittany. Then, beginning in early September, they spent several weeks in the Swiss town of Lausanne. The two children lived in a pension, accompanied by two nannies and Stravinsky’s brother Gury. Igor and Katya entered a neighboring hospital, where their third child, Soulima (Sviatoslav), was born on 23 September.

The Stravinsky family with nanny Baba Sonya in Clarens, Switzerland, December 1911 (Paul Sacher Foundation, Basel)
It all began with a burlesque

“I have never been able to compose unless sure that no one could hear me,” Stravinsky confided in his autobiography in the 1930s.1 In order to work undisturbed in Lausanne, he rented a small attic room in the pension. There he began to elaborate his burlesque for piano and orchestra. Although the new work was originally conceived as an abstract instrumental piece, he was inspired by dramatic ideas during the creative process. This is how he recalled the process in retrospect:

“In composing the music, I had in my mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts.” 2

We owe it to Sergei Diaghilev that this instrumental drama shortly became the cornerstone of a new ballet. Hardly had the Stravinsky family moved their household from Lausanne to the town of Clarens than the impresario of the Ballets Russes came to visit, accompanied by his star dancer and then lover, Vaslav Nijinsky. Stravinsky played a rough version of his new piece to the two men and Diaghilev immediately recognized its dramatic potential. At the same time, this “tireless and diabolically gifted hunter” 3 saw an opportunity not only to draw the young composer closer into his orbit, but to make up with a longstanding comrade-in-arms after a few violent spats. On the very next day he put pen to paper and wrote a letter to the painter, art theorist, and stage designer Alexandre Benois:

“[…] Enough of sulking. Put aside old grievances. You must make the ballet which Igor Stravinsky and I have in mind. Yesterday I heard the music of the Russian Dance and Petrushka’s Shrieks which he has just composed. It is a work of such genius that one cannot contemplate anything beyond it. You alone can do it.” 4

Indeed, Benois couldn’t resist the tempting prospect of immortalizing the story of Petrushka and Russia’s Shrovetide revelries in a ballet. After a visit from Diaghilev in St. Petersburg, Benois, a connoisseur of Russia’s popular culture, wrote to the anxiously waiting composer:

“The Director arrived, and he has given me the key to your mysterious (until now) story about a ballet, and once more I am dragooned (and to a most significant extent thanks to the temptation of working with you) and thus I am ready to join with you in legal marriage for the production […] of our big baby.” 5

One of Stravinsky’s private working rooms, with his most important tool, the piano (Paul Sacher Foundation, Basel) From left to right: General Bezobrazov, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Diaghilev in Beau Soleil, 1911 (Paul Sacher Foundation, Basel)
The fruit of a distant collaboration

Though Stravinsky and Benois went to work with gusto, it soon turned out that the “big baby” would proceed in a complex distant collaboration. At first, Stravinsky continued to work on his music while living on the shores of Lake Geneva and later on the French Riviera. At the same time, over 1200 miles away in St. Petersburg, Benois tried to draft the ballet’s scenario and to sketch his initial ideas for the sets and costumes. Diaghilev functioned as messenger and go-between. He pulled the strings and expanded the “marriage” at least temporarily into a ménage à trois.

The difficulties that this unusual working method entailed are revealed in Stravinsky and Benois’s correspondence. Here is Stravinsky writing from Clarens on 3 November 1910:

“If you only knew how all of this worries me – everything happens out of sight, and one doesn’t know anything. […] If there has already been a discussion of Petrushka, then I would like to take part, at least in writing.” 6

A month later Benois complained in a letter from St. Petersburg:

“Akh, my friend, it’s hard to collaborate at distance. I’ve just acquainted Diaghilev with my projects regarding Petrushka and it turns out that some of them cannot be fulfilled (despite all of D’s sympathy for them), because the music is already written and some of the pieces of the ballet are already set for sure. You should come here so we could sing in tune.” 7

Léon Bakst (1866-1924): Portrait of Alexandre Benois, 1898 (watercolor and pastels)
A working session in St. Petersburg

Before the year was out, the two men’s eager wish to work in direct contact had been fulfilled. Stravinsky traveled to St. Petersburg, and Benois was able for the first time to hear the transformed burlesque for piano and orchestra and other passages of the ballet score that he had known only from verbal descriptions:

“What I now heard surpassed my expectations. The Russian Dance proved to be really magic music in which infectious, diabolical recklessness alternated with strange digressions into tenderness – then, after a culminating paroxysm, came to an abrupt end. As for Petrouchka’s Cry, having listened to it about three times, I began to discern in it grief, and rage, and love, as well as the helpless despair that dominated it.” 8

Consuming tea and Russian cakes, the two men worked on the plot in Diaghilev’s St. Petersburg apartment. Benois also supplied a scenario for the part of the piece that had become the second tableau, “Chez Petrushka.”

By the time Stravinsky had to leave in early January 1910, the two artists were highly satisfied with the results of their intensive labors. Back on the Côte d’Azur, Stravinsky wrote as follows to Andrei Rimsky-Korsakov, the son of his famous teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov:

“My last Petersburg visit seems to have done me a lot of good. The final act is turning out interestingly, continuous quick tempi and major keys somehow redolent of Russian food – cabbage soup maybe, bottle-boots, the garmoshka [concertina] – ecstasy! Excitement! What’s Monte Carlo? There you can’t even smoke in the Salle de Jeu!” 9

St. Petersburg, ca. 1910
Completing the score and preparing the performance

Over the next few weeks and months, Stravinsky worked at white heat to complete the score. A severe case of nicotine poisoning forced him to take a fairly long interim break. His correspondence with Benois shows just how tight his schedule really was. Here is Stravinsky writing on 26 January 1911:

“I am horribly frightened and enervated by time pressure (a feeling I know well from Firebird, and one that neither you nor Diaghilev cares about – how cruel!). Yesterday I sent Diaghilev a four-hands version of the first tableau – that was a job too. The Director sends telegrams, threatens me with the contract. In the next few days I will send off the four-hand version of the 2nd tableau of Petrushka. I haven’t got the time to have copies made of these things–I’m sending the originals.” 10

In early May, Stravinsky set out for Rome, the still unfinished score in his luggage. There he met with the ensemble of the Ballets Russes, who had to complete a series of guest performances at the Rome Opera before launching their season in Paris. The extraordinary final passage of the ballet was written in feverish haste in a hotel room near the Piazza Barberini, where a piano had been installed at the composer’s request. Meanwhile the dancers had already begun to learn their parts under the direction of Michel Fokine. As no other space was available, the rehearsals had to take place in the cafeteria of the opera house. Benois recalled the situation in his memoirs:

“The floor was covered with soiled crimson cloth, on which our artists had to dance and sometimes to lie. The weather was terribly hot and everybody suffered from it, most of all Fokine, who was always moving, and Stravinsky, who for hours performed the duties of a pianist – for who but the composer himself could read the complicated manuscript or simplify the music to make it comprehensible to the dancers? Even Fokine used at moments to have difficulty in mastering some of the rhythms (which were indeed unusual) and memorizing the themes, now so well known and in those days so ‘daringly original.’” 11

Stravinsky’s music-line roller (Paul Sacher Foundation, Basel) Tamara Karsavina, ballerinaTamara Karsavina, ballerina
The Paris première

After a goodly amount of tension-laden preparation in Paris and two open dress rehearsals, the new ballet was finally premièred at the Théâtre du Châtelet on 13 June 1911. The enthusiastic audience experienced a total work of art in which music, dance, and stage décor impressively coalesced into a higher unity. Here is Katya Stravinsky reporting to her mother-in-law in Russia:

“Nijinsky proved a real artist and did Petrushka superlatively, moving, and with deep feeling. And after all there was nothing easy for him, none of his leaps, no display, it was completely new for him and he made of it something utterly beautiful. Karsavina was charming. Benois’s costumes and decors were marvelous. I only find that there’s not enough room for the crowds. … At the actual performance there was the same success, a lot of applause, Gima was called out, and again and again praise and enthusiasm, sincere and insincere.” 12

The responses in the French press were, for the most part, no less enthusiastic. The leading critic Jacques Rivière wrote in Nouvelle Revue Française, “Petrushka must be called a masterpiece, one of the most unexpected, most impulsive, most buoyant and lively that I know.”  13

Vaslav Nijinsky as Petrushka, 1911 (akg-images/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017)
Bibliographic references

One enlightening source on the genesis of Petrushka is the highly readable correspondence between Stravinsky and Alexandre Benois. It has been published in an annotated English translation edited by Andrew Wachtel as Petrushka: Sources and contexts (Northwestern University Press, 1998), pp. 123-38.

The most important musical source on the work’s early genesis is Stravinsky’s sketchbook with inscriptions from the latter half of 1910. It is located in the Juilliard Manuscript Collection, where it can be viewed online. Click here for the online edition of the sketchbook.

Secondary literature

Richard Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions 1 (Berkeley und Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), esp. pp. 661-89.

Stephen Walsh, Stravinsky. A Creative Spring. Russia and France, 1882-1934 (London: Pimlico, 2002), pp. 140-67.


1 Igor Stravinsky:  An Autobiography (1903–1934) (London: Calder & Boyars, 1975), p. 57.

2 Ibid., p. 31.

3 Misia Sert: Pariser Erinnerungen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1999), p. 162.

4 Quoted from Richard Taruskin: Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions 1 (Berkeley und Los Angeles: University of California Press), 1996), p. 670.

5 Petrushka: Sources and contexts, ed. Andrew Wachtel (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998), p. 124.

6 Ibid., p. 125.

7 Ibid., p. 130.

8 Alexandre Benois: Memoirs, trans. Moira Budberg, vol. 1 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1960), p. 327.

9 Quoted from Stephen Walsh: Stravinsky, A Creative Spring: Russia and France, 18821934 (London: Pimlico, 2002), p. 155.

10 Wachtel, Petrushka (see note 5), p. 133.

11 Benois, Memoirs (see note 8), p. 332.

12 Quoted from Walsh, Stravinsky (see note 9), pp. 163f.

13 Quoted from Vera Stravinsky and Robert Craft: Stravinsky in pictures and documents (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978), p. 66.