The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a (1892)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker, was not always the Christmas standard it is today. When it premiered in 1892, critics were not kind in their reviews. However, the composer knew his music was worthy so he created two suites from the ballet. The first suite, with its charming character dances, proved to be very popular in the concert hall. Regrettably, he did not live to see his original ballet become the beloved Christmas tradition it is today.
The ballet is in two acts; the first scene is at a Christmas party, where Clara receives a nutcracker as her present. One of the other children breaks it, and after everyone goes to bed, Clara slips downstairs to get her toy. The nutcracker comes to life and turns into a handsome prince, who takes her to the “Kingdom of Sweets.” The second half of the ballet does not have a story; the character dances represent “candies” from different countries, who perform for her.
What makes this music so enduring is the masterful way Tchaikovsky uses the colors of the instruments to portray the confections. “Chocolate” is given a Spanish dance with a brilliant solo for the trumpet. The “Arabian Dance” is Arabic coffee, although the oriental-sounding music is actually based on a Georgian lullaby. The “Chinese Dance” represents tea, with an acrobatic flute and piccolo and pizzicato strings.
The “Trepak” is a traditional Russian dance that might be the single most-used piece of music in today’s Christmas movies. Its festive tune perfectly captures the excitement and chaotic rushing that is a part of Christmas preparation. The “Dance of the Mirlitons” features the flute section with English horn responses, and a mirliton is both a reed flute and a tube-shaped pastry.
The celeste, which is a cross between a small piano and a glockenspiel, portrays the enchanting Queen of the Sweets, the “Sugar Plum Fairy.” This suite ends with Tchaikovsky’s most famous waltz, the Waltz of the Flowers, with its beautiful harp solo and grand symphonic style. It is a sweet feast of music!
—notes compiled by Betty Taylor Cox