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This Is How Stravinsky Had Fun with 18th-Century Melodies

Randy Beach
Conductor Nicholas McGegan

Early music has been a lifelong passion of conductor Nicholas McGegan. It’s also informed the efforts of composers known for quite different styles, including Igor Stravinsky.

While Nicholas McGegan is a renowned expert in early music, he also relishes finding connections among pieces from different periods. Stravinsky, whose  controversial music to the ballet, The Rite of Spring, made him an international sensation, turned to 18th century melodies when he wrote the score for Pulcinella.

“It’s known as his neoclassical period,” McGegan says. “And what he’s done is taken music by [Giovanni Battista] Pergolesi and Domenico Gallo and quite a few anonymous pieces and dressed them up. He “Stravinsky-ized” them, he says with a grin.

How did he do that?

“Instead of going dum-dum-diddly-dum, the trombone goes WAHHHH .. It’s a little bit raspberry-esque, shall we say! Which is fine, because it’s all based on comedy, so it is meant to be fun, but it does have some sentimental moments.”

The ballet premiered in1920 at the Paris Opera, billed as “music of Pergolesi arranged and orchestrated by …   Stravinsky.” The composer created an orchestral suite which premiered in Boston in 1922. Stravinsky himself described Pulcinella as a “discovery of the past,” which made his later work possible.

“I think it’s a wonderful piece,” reflects McGegan. “And sweet, for people who think modern music is a bit terrifying, not that this is modern — it’s written maybe a hundred years ago - but it’s very graceful and good fun!

Conductor Nicholas McGegan talks with WRTI's Susan Lewis about composers looking to the past and about how playing the harpsichord is a lot like playing jazz.

On Sunday, December 5th at 1 PM on WRTI 90.1, and Monday, December 6th at 7 PM on WRTI HD-2, listen to Nicholas McGegan conduct The Philadelphia Orchestra back in 2018 in a performance of Stravinsky’s Suite from Pulcinella. Also on the program is music of Respighi, Handel, Locatelli, and Rossini. 

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.