Arguably no other work by Tchaikovsky is as popular today as The Nutcracker. The music has long since become part of world music – it suffices to mention that in the 20th century Walt Disney and Duke Ellington both made use of it.
In Tchaikovsky’s ballets the music is a component that has equal status with the on-stage plot, and certainly not just an accompaniment and a metrical reference-point for the dancers. “Ballet is the same as a symphony,” said Tchaikovsky who had written The Sleeping Beauty two years earlier; the composer also developed this idea in The Nutcracker. The music of The Nutcracker took on a life of its own almost half a year before the ballet was first staged. In March 1892 the suite from the ballet, arranged by Tchaikovsky himself, was performed at a concert and proved a great success with the public.
The music of The Nutcracker is a dialogue with different epochs and genres; the refined overture, the pompous procession and the early German Grossvater Tanz (Grandfather’s Dance) in Act I remind us of a gallant era; the night-time scene with the battle is without doubt a tribute to the tradition of German romantic fantasy, truly Hoffmannesque music. Lastly we have the music of Act I – looking forward into the 20th century.
Act II of the ballet, according to the libretto a grand divertissement and already with almost nothing in common with Hoffmann’s plot (which is exhausted in Act I), presented a well-known difficulty for Tchaikovsky. “I sense my utter inability to bring Confiturenburg to life in music,” the composer admitted in a letter to his brother Modest. But a solution was found and it was precisely Tchaikovsky’s music itself that was to be the factor that ironed out the uneven dramaturgy of the libretto.
The scene of the arrival in Confiturenburg is written in an almost impressionistic style; the composer wrote the scene of the magical castle using exclusively timbre means (the tremolo flute, the high register of the bassoon, the arpeggio of the strings and the celesta), at times not even using bold thematic structures. In the suite of dances which follows this scene Tchaikovsky appears as a master of orchestral writing, able to depict the most differing degrees of musical expression – exoticism (the Arabian and Chinese Dances), pastorale qualities (Dance of the Shepherdesses), irony (Mother Gigogne) and a mysteriously fantastical flavour (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy; for the performance of this number Tchaikovsky brought from Paris a new musical instrument – the celesta). But in the middle passage – Waltz of the Flowers – there are tragic intonations, while in the culmination of the famous Adagio we are reminded of themes of destiny from his symphonies. The music reminds us that Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is something greater than just a children’s Christmas fairy-tale, and the question of its finale – despite being an apotheosis in major key – remains an open one.
© Mariinsky Theatre, 2015/Vladimir Khavrov
Piano Concerto No 1 was composed by Tchaikovsky over the last two months of 1874 (until February 1875 he was engaged in the work’s instrumentation). It would appear that when working on the concerto the composer showed it to his favourite pupil Sergei Taneyev. This was the response of the young (eighteen-year-old!) student who told his acquaintances: “I congratulate you all on the appearance of the first Russian piano concerto it was written by Pyotr Ilyich.” It is known that Tchaikovsky initially dedicated the concerto to Taneyev, though he subsequently rededicated it to someone else Hans von Bülow who first performed the concerto on 25 October 1875 in Boston. The premiere proved a riotous success. Tchaikovsky wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov: “Imagine what an appetite the Americans have: at each performance of my concerto von Bülow had to repeat the finale.” Soon after (1 November 1875) came the St Petersburg premiere which initially drew contradictory responses. Nikolai Rubinstein, who initially had many grievances and had demands for rewrites (which Tchaikovsky categorically rejected), came to be one of the finest performers of the concerto. Tchaikovsky had an extremely high opinion of Sergei Taneyev’s performance: “I often see Taneyev,” he wrote to his brother Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky, “If only you knew how brilliantly he performs my concerto!”
One and a half centuries later Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto has become the same kind of “synonym” as the Fifth or Ninth Symphonies for Beethoven. Its strong heroic tone and dramatic pathos are blended with a virtuoso decorative style and, at the same time, with extremely delicate lyricism. The recitative-like style of the melody as in Tchaikovsky’s operas lightly and naturally flows into the rounded “arioso” forms that absorbed Russian and Ukrainian songfulness. The First Concerto is one of those pearls that has become a symbol of world musical classics. Who today would not respond to its “call” the broad introduction of the French horns, the majestic colonnade of the piano chords and the powerful and dazzling main theme of the strings supported by the brass!
Always extremely sincere in his music, Tchaikovsky composed his Fourth Symphony at one of the most critical periods of his life, after which he was left with “general recollections of passion, the terror of sensations I have felt.” Impressions of his disastrous marriage and hasty divorce came to form a feeling of general disappointment and lack of self-confidence in the composer’s mind. The acuteness of his personal sufferings made the composition of the symphony an incredibly difficult process which required almost a year of intense work (in comparison, Tchaikovsky wrote the opera The Queen of Spades in just forty-four days). As a result, a work emerged where the eternal problem of mankind – the uneven battle of the individual against external circumstances that are indifferent to his wishes and needs – was portrayed with hitherto unknown power. In the symphony’s introduction, during the threatening theme of Fate, Tchaikovsky presents the circumstances in such a way that it becomes clear that victory is impossible for friendless human volition, “there is no landing-stage … sail over this sea until grasps you and drags you to its depths.” The musical development of the first movement reflects the succession of natural psychological reactions at the recognition of the inevitability of Fate: anguish, confusion leading to despair and, lastly, the attempt to forget oneself, to leave one’s problems behind in a world of serene illusions. The increasing distance from conflict can be sensed in the development of the subsequent movements of the symphonic cycle which led Taneyev to make the association with “a symphonic poem to which three movements were joined by chance and thus created the symphony.” If traces of the composer’s subjective emotions can be felt in the second movement, then the genre images of the scherzo and the finale may in no sense be likened to attempts to struggle against Fate, as for Tchaikovsky the futility of such endeavours had been evident from the very start.