Why Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” is the sound of the holidays for many of us


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It is, for many of us, the permanent soundtrack of the holiday season. Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Nutcracker”, like no other music, evokes images of warm fireplaces, swirling snowflakes, brilliantly wrapped gifts, twinkling lights on a fragrant tree. I’ve been hooked on the “Nutcracker” sheet music ever since I first performed ballet when I was maybe 6 or 7, sitting on a folding chair in the high school gymnasium while a friend of mine played on the ballet. music recorded with his school ballet. Dozens of Nutcrackers later, it’s still magic.

Things weren’t that magical at first. Tchaikovsky, at the end of his career, began writing the ballet “The Nutcracker” – as well as a separate composition combining much of his music, called “The Nutcracker Suite” – in 1891 as a play. accompaniment to a now-forgotten one-act opera called “Iolanta. Both works premiered in December 1892 at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, to mixed reception. Tchaikovsky died the following year at the age of 53 years old, believing the work to be a failure; according to biographer David Brown, it was not replayed in Russia until 1919.

And it could have been that, without Guillaume Christensen, artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, who single-handedly launched the “Nutcracker” tradition in America by presenting the first American production of the ballet in December 1944. According to the San Francisco Ballet, Christensen had never seen “The Nutcracker” in its entirety before directing it, but was able to get a noted score from the Library of Congress and told George Balanchine about the latter’s memories of ballet in Russia. Balanchine would create his own hugely popular “The Nutcracker” for the New York City Ballet a decade later (the same choreography currently performed by the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle), and today you can hear Tchaikovsky’s score in one. “The Nutcracker” production in every town and city in America, from the smallest ballet schools to the most dazzling professional companies.

And while it’s always a joy to hear this work performed live, as the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra does for several performances through December, you don’t need to buy a ticket – or even be interested. at the ballet – to appreciate the artistic talent of Tchaikovsky. Goal. It goes through my head all the time, always starting with delicate strokes of the opening (Former PNB Musical Director Stewart Kershaw, who has conducted around 800 performances of the ballet during his career, told me years ago that he viewed this piece as the opening of a box of music, staging), played by the orchestra’s lighter instruments, as if to reassure the youngest spectators that everything is sweet here.

The party scene music, with its playful steps and majestic gavotte, is pleasant and lovely, but the true joy of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” does not begin until Clara goes to bed. The stage is empty and the night has fallen, and the music find a sense of black wonder, with small eruptions of notes and a sudden crash of brass. And then it begins to grow and grow, like the tree, its notes emerging like gold thread spun in ever increasing heaps, and suddenly you are 6 again, your gaze mesmerized by a scene transforming under your eyes. eyes, hearing the cymbals clash and the strings fly away. Brown, in “Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music”, called the music of the tree “one of the most impressive passages Tchaikovsky ever wrote.” (I just listened to him again. He’s not wrong.)

We continue, in the dark playfulness of the combat music, the majestic notes of the pas de deux pre-Snow (Kershaw called it “the great C major”) and the delicious singing flutes of the The waltz of snowflakes, which always sounds to me exactly what a nighttime snowfall looks like, with snowflakes chasing each other in the icy breeze. Act 2 brings a pastiche of musical inspirations for the various international dances (although Brown notes that the Arabic variation, also known as Peacock, is not Arabic at all but is based on a Georgian cradle song. ). And there is another bit of magic: the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, with the delicate bell tones of the celesta – then a brand new instrument that Tchaikovsky’s beginnings plotted in secret, feared that another composer would steal its thunder. It is as if the ballerina were dancing on delicate porcelain, or on fairy wings; a dance of ethereal beauty and weightless joy.

I would have liked to have been expert enough in classical music to recommend a particular recording of “The Nutcracker”, but I suspect that if you like this music, the best recording is the one that is at hand. There is a nice one currently on YouTube, if you need it, by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra – an unusual presentation of the music of the complete ballet, without the dance. But let me correct myself: there is actually a lot of dancing, in the expressive movements of the entire body of the conductor who clearly likes to be overwhelmed by this glorious music.

“For the thousands of people who see him every December, Tchaikovsky has become something like a favorite uncle before Christmas (much like Drosselmeyer),” David Schroeder wrote in “Living Tchaikovsky: A Listener,” ” enchanting us and bringing us into the season like nothing else can. Try listening to it with your eyes closed at some point during this holiday season, and see if you don’t suddenly shake, like you are gently bombarded by a perfect and sudden snow.


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