Stravinsky had a ferocious reputation for modernism in his day but here he writes a delightful baroque pastiche, in this case taken from the music of Pergolesi – or, to be strictly accurate, music that he thought was by Pergolesi. Back in the time of the Great War and of Diaghilev’s famous ballet company, Stravinsky went exploring in Naples with his friend Pablo Picasso, where they saw a performance of the commedia dell’arte classic, Pulcinella, which they described as being startlingly obscene. So Stravinsky was appalled when Diaghilev suggested a ballet based on Pulcinella and the music of Pergolesi. The great impresario had shrewdly worked out that ballet scores ‘after’ a composer of the past seasoned the palatably familiar with the spice of modern orchestration, a combination that proved popular with his public.
And so, after recovering from Diaghilev’s ‘deranged’ suggestion, Stravinsky entered his neo-classical phase through the cynical back door of commercial necessity. He quickly grew to delight in Pergolesi’s music though many of the pieces he worked on turned out to be by other eighteenth century composers. For the most part he left the melodies and harmonies intact and only occasionally introduced elements of his own newly developed rhythmic language. However by vivid instrumental colouring and piquant additions to the harmony, he creates a score that is both Pergolesi and Stravinsky. This ballet with song was premiered in Paris in 1920.
Ten or so years later Stravinsky was overwhelmed by the virtuosity and audacious technique of the violinist Samuel Dushkin and wrote his Violin Concerto for him in 1931. This in turn prompted him to embark on a European tour with the violinist and in order to flesh out their recital repertoire, the pair jointly transcribed various pieces by Stravinsky. Out of this exercise was the Suite Italienne born, so, though it is commonly described as being by Stravinsky, it is probably more ‘Pergolesi’ and Dushkin than the composer himself!