Prokofiev wrote Chout (The Buffoon) in 1915, but revised it in 1920 for the May 17, Paris premiere, the following year, by Sergei Diagilev's Ballet Russes. The composer conducted, and its first performances were generally successful, though the somewhat unimaginative choreography by Larionov and Slavinsky eventually proved its undoing.
The ballet consists of six scenes, each separated by an entr'acte, thus tallying eleven numbers in all. The suite that Prokofiev extracted in 1922 contains twelve movements but is not an expansion of the score: a concert performance typically lasts about thirty-five to forty minutes, while the full ballet score takes nearly an hour. In arranging The Buffoon Suite Prokofiev eliminated some music from the ballet altogether. For example, the first entr'acte and a grotesque but highly effective rhythmic episode mainly for brass and percussion from Scene Three do not appear in the Suite. And only small slices of certain other sections are used.
But the reason Prokofiev fashioned more movements in the Suite than appear in the original score was that he divided certain dances into as many as four parts. The ballet's Scene Six - In The Merchant's Garden, for instance, is the source music for the last four movements in the Suite.
The Suite's first movement, The Buffoon and his Wife opens with some leaping, glissando-like figures that are followed by the dominant main theme, played on oboe. It is a curious melody, at once comical and mournful, depicting the image of a sad clown and perfectly appropriate for the story's chief buffoon. Early in the ballet, he will induce seven other buffoons to kill their wives after he pretends to raise his wife from the dead with a magic whip. The second movement, Dance of the Wives is oafishly comical at the outset, then turns suavely Russian in the latter half with a cleverly orchestrated, quite memorable lively melody.
The Buffoons kill their wives follows. It is boisterous and fantasy-like in the first half, then becomes mostly subdued in the latter part. The fourth movement is The Buffoon as a Young Woman, which contains perhaps the most subtle thematic creation in the entire work. The theme has an arch-like pattern and imparts a surreal atmosphere. The latter half of this sequence turns tense and angry, but never leaves its netherworld.
The brief Third Entr'acte follows, using the main theme, then livelier music for the latter part. Dance of the Buffoons' Daughters brings music of a Russian character and more than vaguely sounds like drunken Tchaikovsky, though the fast music that follows alludes to no outside influence. The Entry of the Merchant and his welcome begins ominously, the lower brass warning of some great doom. But the ethereal world returns with both spookiness and sadness and some interesting variations on the main theme.
The eighth movement, In the Merchant's Bedroom introduces the same theme that appears the next section, The Young Woman becomes a Goat. In the former, the music is slow and serene, while in the latter it is big and pompous, quite appropriate for a scene of great spectacle. Here, the music's purpose is satire and mockery. The Fifth Entr'acte and the Goat's Burial is subdued and recalls several previous themes.
The last two movements, The Buffoon and the Merchant quarrel and Final Dance contain some of the finest music in the ballet. The former is powerful and driven, and reaches a shattering climax. The latter begins slowly and works its joyous and ecstatic theme into a rousing and glorious finish.