(Essay originally appeared in Entropy)
When George Antheil was three-years-old, he wanted a piano for his birthday. Instead of a normal-sized one, his parents gifted him a toy version instead. He brought the imposture down to the basement, he said, and smashed it to pieces with a small hatchet.
That violent episode, he recalled years later in a taped interview, was an indication of where his theories of music composition would turn.
With the premiere of his Ballet mecaniqueat the fashionable Theatre de Champs-Elysees on July 19, 1926, the effect was comparable to his demolishing a piano onstage. Parallels were drawn instantly between the performance and the 1913 debut of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which had been met with an equally riotous backlash. However, there was something different about Antheil’s kinetic music. The ballet is a 19-minute glimpse into the latter part of the 20th century. It’s an outrageous stomping titan, with inklings of what the future might sound like: mechanical, sarcastic, hyperactive—simultaneously a warning and a glorifying of technologies to come.
Petruchka is a jester-like puppet from Russian folklore. In Stravinsky’s ballet, he’s underscored with a grating theme that’s come to be called the Petruchka Chord (triads of C major and F sharp major played together). Stravinsky’s version debuted in 1911; its atmosphere is subtly threatening, mixed in with the Punch-and-Judy world of carnival that moves from frenetic rumpus to quiet ostinato.
A sorcerer and a prince vie for a princess in the Firebird Suite (1910). Commissioned for the debut of the Ballet Russes, it was Stravinsky’s first successful work. The title comes from the avian symbol for beauty and guardianship, and as with Petruchka, folk motifs, visually and musically, recur.
Pierre Monteux is an excellent guide to all things Stravinsky, especially in the composer’s earlier, difficult ballets, before his about-face to neo-classicism. Marc Chagall’s cover art, “The Blue Circus”, is especially appropriate.
Whenever “classical music” and “riot” are mentioned together it’s usually in reference to the premiere, in 1913, of Stravinsky’s pagan ballet. Design-wise, this cover (from a painting by Henri Rousseau) evokes a definite a Garden of Eden vibe, but with the added bonus of a snake-wrapped shadow-person playing the flute. Pierre Monteux, who conducted that first notorious performance, returns for this 1950s recording.
Idil Biret’s early album featuring solo works by Ravel and Stravinsky. Includes Gaspard de la Nuit and the classical-modernist Petrouchka (3 Scenes), from the latter’s burlesque opera. And so obviously the sleeve should depict a horrifying taloned creature emerging from a cave.