Exploring Music's Complexities

It’s All About Pulcinella

Stravinsky’s Pulcinella


For those who are not familiar with Pulcinella, it is a ballet that was written by Igor Stravinsky in 1920.  It is based on the works of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and his contemporaries including Gallo, Monaz, and Parisotti (1).

Despite Pergolesi ‘s early death at the age of 26, in 1736, he is considered to be one of the most important early composers of opera buffa or comic opera.  In addition to writing operas he wrote sacred music including Stabat Mater (2) and his durezze e ligature style work was arranged by Johann Sebastian Bach, who used it as a basis for his cantata Tilge, Hochster, meine Sunden (root out my sins, Highest One) BWV 1083 (3).

Pergolesi’s works continue to be enjoyed today. Several pieces have been incorporated into films.  Salve Regina was highlighted in Farinella (1994), “Amadeus”, “Jesus de Montreal, “Mirror” and “Cactus” among others (4).

What does this all have to do with Stravinsky’s ballet, which he composed in 1920?  The story of Pulcinella was created in Naples during the 1700s and is entitled Quartre Polichineooes semboabes or “four identical Pulcinellas.”   At the urging of Sergey Diaghilev, impresario of Ballets Russes Company, Stravinksy reluctantly took up the challenge of freshening up this existing material.

Because the compositions were lifted from existing High classical music and were not composed by Stravinsky, the score for Pulcinella has a strong neoclassical aesthetic. Even so, the resulting ballet is very much Stravinsky (4).  For example, he borrowed specific themes and textures with interjections of modern rhythms, cadences and harmonies.  Using Pergolesi’s melodies and bass lines he added is own harmonies and alterations to the counterpoint.  This made the music sound almost “jazzy” (6).  Other liberties include the overuse of mordents and trills.  Pulcinella contains numerous instances of Hemiola, which is the overlaying of a rhythmic figure on top of a metre which it does not cleanly fit without resulting syncopation.  At times these rhythmic effects can be jarring (7).

Critics identify Pulcinella as the beginning of Stravinsky’s neoclassical style.  Unlike earlier ballets, Pulcinella does not require a huge ensemble, but is limited to a modest chamber ensemble of strings, double woodwinds without clarinets, and four brass players along with the soprano, tenor, and bass soloists.  Neither did he switch between irregular time signatures.  Once the ballet starts it goes until it’s over.

As it turned out, the ballet received more critical and popular success that Stravinsky had anticipated. It also had an influence on young composers, Francis Poulenc most especially (7).

The Suite for Orchestra is less than half of that of the ballet and vocal parts in the second and eighth movements are eliminated.  The music is assigned to various instruments.  The first movement of the Suite, the Sinfonia, is the most famous  (8).

So whose music is it?  Although written by Pergolesi, the piece is very much more than an arrangement by Stravinsky. It  is a unique product of Stravinsky rather than a simple arrangement of Pergolesi and company.


  1. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.  http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Lib/Pergolesi.htm.  Retrieved August 8, 2014.


  1. Sabat Mater.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AogRuKseGAA.


  1. Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden  http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Vocal/BWV1083-Gen.htm


  1.  Amadeus.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5GCgxG3S-8#t=41  Retrieved August 8, 2014.


  1. Posted in: Classical by Silent Writer on February 13th, 2009. Read more: http://musicouch.com/genres/classical/stravinskys-compositional-style-a-comparison/#ixzz39j8eqkst   Retrieved August 8, 2014.


  1. Stravinski  Pucinella (complete) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVEcJnlHUMM   Retrieved August 8, 2014.


  1. Classical Music:  In what ways does Stravinsky’s Pulcnella diverge from Classical period composition.  http://www.quorq.com-Music.  Retrieved August 8, 2014.


  1. I.Stravinsky – Pulcinella Suite (Sinfonia, Serenata, MinuettoFinale by  Orch. Sinfonica di San Marino.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=An9mwin_z-s  Retrieved August 8, 2014.



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