Stravinsky and Benois’ Libretto

If Petrushka represents a collaboration of different art forms, then the ballet’s libretto could be described as the product of that collaboration.



Alexander Benois (left) and Igor Stravinsky (right)




Each of the individual collaborators juxtaposed cultural material from their own areas of expertise for their own artistic purposes.  The competing views of each of the collaborators liberated the text from dependence on any single source or interpretation. Stravinsky “had in mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios.” It was Stravinsky that came up with the title Petrushka. But it was Benois that came up with the grand finale. “ Benois told Stravinsky, “After the Moor kills Petrushka, the Magician should come out on stage and, having gathered up all three, that is Petrushka, the Moor and the Ballerina, he should exit with an elegant and affected bow, the same way he exited the first time.” Benois also wanted to make sure there was an image of Petrushka being tortured by jealousy finally breaking out and freeing himself from the Magician’s depraved spells.


19th century opera, ballet and literary plots influenced important aspects of Petrushka’s libretto. Stravinsky, Benois, and Fokine were all closely connected to the artistic life in St. Petersburg so it isn’t surprising they decided to borrow ideas from some of these works. The most obvious usage of 19th century influences is the idea of animating inanimate objects of figures. For example, Benois stated that the ballet, Coppelia, was one of his influences for the libretto.  The 1870 production of Coppelia is a story about a doll named Coppelia that is made lifelike by a toymaker, Coppelius. Coppelia is so life-like that a young boy falls in love with her. The ballet contains two scenes of animation in which one of those scenes, Coppelia actually comes to life. The elements of Coppelia that were parodied in Petrushka are quite obvious.


Coppelia 1870

A few other ballets that Benois drew from in order to create the libretto for Petrushka were The Nutcracker and The Fairy Doll.  Both productions involved a doll or some inanimate object “coming to life.” Though what is unique about Petrushka is the ambiguity of its situation. The overlap between the “real world” of the carnival and the created world of the puppets cannot be explained through a dream-like state or trickery.


The Nutcracker


Anna Pavlova in The Fairy Doll

Aside from ballets, Operas played a role in the libretto as well. Stravinsky mentioned that he was impressed by the “dramatic action” of Alexander Serov’s The Power of the Fiend and borrowed some general thematic elements for the Shrovetide carnival scenes. This particular opera takes place during the Shrovetide carnival in 17th century Moscow, and the fourth act puts a very naturalistic version of the carnival on stage. The success of the Petrushka’s libretto was patched together from a number of different sources. The libretto grew from contradictory impulses of non-professional writers to a visionary ballet. Petrushka combines the aspects of music, dance, and high art in order to create a new wave of theatrical performance.