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Learn about the piece:

The Nutcracker Suite

Composed by

Duke Ellington


Billy Strayhorn



5 reeds, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, piano, bass, drums

Composed 1960.

I. Overture
II. Toot Toot Tootie Toot (Dance of the Reed-Pipes)
III. Peanut Brittle Brigade (March)
IV. Sugar Rum Cherry (Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy)
V. Entr'acte
VI. Volga Vouty (Russian Dance)
VII. Chinoiserie (Chinese Dance)
VIII. Danse of the Floreadores (Waltz of the Flowers)
IX. Arabesque Cookie (Arabian Dance)

Notes by Katherine Baber

Our midwinter holidays bring light into the darkest days of the year, each in their own ways—but music always casts the warmest glow. Singing together draws families and neighbors closer in the harshest season, strengthening communal bonds through traditions like the carol. Although written for orchestral voices, Respighi’s and Britten’s works feature two of the oldest and best-known melodies of Christmastide.

Although the theme of “The Adoration of the Magi” is recognizable as the carol “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” Respighi’s mind was not on the Advent season. Rather, the three movements of the Trittico Botticelliano each take their inspiration from a different painting by Sandro Botticelli, renowned artist of the Italian Renaissance. The first and third are likely familiar: La primavera (Spring) and La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus). The middle part of the triptych, “L’adorazione dei Magi,” is less humanistic and more traditional, with its subject from the Book of Matthew.

The three “wise men” who visit the infant Jesus in Bethlehem are often named as Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar, but Botticelli based his figures on the likenesses of three important members of the Medici family: Cosimo the Elder and his sons, Piero and Giovanni. Various other elites of Florence appear in their entourages, including the banker who commissioned the painting and the current scion of the Medici, Lorenzo (son of Piero). This seems to have mattered less to Respighi, however, than the common understanding of the Magi as kings of Arabia, Persia, and India. To quote another carol than the one Respighi selected: “we three kings of Orient are bearing gifts.”

Respighi immediately signals the Magi’s origins in the East with a number of familiar exoticisms. The bassoon and oboe, with their resonant yet reedy timbres, spin out a winding melody, spiced with “Oriental”-sounding chromaticism. The flute then joins in with whirling arabesques before the strings introduce the main theme. Although the lyrics of the English-language carol may be more familiar, given Respighi’s interest in “ancient” music and art, he was likely thinking of the fifteenth-century Latin hymn, “Veni Emmanuel.” Either way one hears it, Respighi’s colorful orchestration is fascinating, filled with nuances that mirror the subtlety of Botticelli’s palette. In particular, the prominence of bells, harp, celesta, and triangle add another touch of exoticism. In the end, the oboe and bassoon return with a gently swaying melody, like a lullaby for the Christ child, surrounded by a shimmering halo of strings.

Where Respighi paints with a fascinating variety of orchestral timbres, Britten’s special hues are his unusual harmonies. While the tune of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is recognizable, Britten’s setting in Men of Good Will wanders far from the predictable harmonizations of the standard choral arrangement. Inspired by both medieval and non-Western music, Britten makes some surprising choices for listeners more familiar with the Romantic, nineteenth-century versions of the carol. If a particular twist or turn in Britten’s arrangement seems strange, consider it as a restoration of the more ethereal qualities of a tune with origins in the sixteenth century.

The regal air of the brass fanfare that opens the first variation of the carol resonates with the original context of the work: a radio performance preceding the Christmas message of King George VI in 1947. The second variation, with its urgent rhythmic ostinato, is another striking choice in a traditionally stoic carol. Call and response between the strings and woodwinds, as well as punctuations from the brass, add to the forward momentum. The third variation gentles into a pastoral version of the tune, with a series of lilting solos from the flute, oboe, bassoon, and clarinet and an angelic accompaniment of harp and strings. What follows in the fourth variation is a more playful woodwind section and the pop of pizzicato strings before the brass saunter in with the fifth variation, also featuring a full-throated string section. The sixth variation begins as a slow chorale from the brass with a swirling string accompaniment—we are closest here to the rotund traditional version of the carol—before the overlapping, contrapuntal voices of the whole orchestra build to a majestic finish.

The Christmas Eve setting of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker, has helped it to become one of America’s most beloved Christmas traditions, even though the composer had nothing of the sort in mind. (You can thank the San Francisco Ballet of the 1940s.) By 1960, the potential appeal of updating Tchaikovsky’s score was obvious enough to a savvy musician like Duke Ellington. Moreover, Ellington had always been interested in long-form composition, exploring the fusion of classical techniques with jazz style in works like his Creole Rhapsody (1931) and his concerto for trumpeter Cootie Williams, Concerto for Cootie (1940). After offering his take on the Nutcracker Suite, with Billy Strayhorn as arranger, he would go on to write the Far East Suite (1966, also with Strayhorn), the New Orleans Suite (1970), and a jazz version of the Christian liturgy in his Sacred Concerts of the 1960s.

Although separated by a century, the demands of the Romantic-era Russian ballet and the elaborate stage shows of New York City‘s Cotton Club in the late 1920s presented similar challenges to Tchaikovsky and Ellington. The need for variety was paramount, meaning constant shifts in musical mood and style, but at the same time continuity was necessary. Exoticism was an audience favorite in both settings, and each composer had to take into account the choreography, making sure rhythms and tempos would allow the dancers to show their skills to the best effect.

The overtures to both suites set the tone and show the range of timbre, volume, and articulation possible in each of their respective orchestras. Both are also elegant and balanced, whether in terms of the classicism that Tchaikovsky gleaned from Mozart and Haydn or the carefully calibrated swing of Ellington’s band. What typically follows in any concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s suite is a selection from among the “characteristic dances,” which contrast style, tempo, and orchestration in order to conjure the various members of the court of the Sugar-Plum Fairy. As most conductors do, Ellington selected some, but not all, of these dances in order to show off the members of his band.

Ellington’s “Toot, Toot, Tootie, Toot” is the closest to its source material, although the innovations set the tone for what is to come. Where Tchaikovsky had piping flutes and bassoons over a quiet string ostinato, Ellington has the reed section divided into clarinets and saxes in close alternation, over a relaxed groove in the rhythm section, with more forceful interjections from the brass. The melancholy, resonant English horn solo becomes a series of broad smears with cup mutes in the trombones. Where the middle portion of Tchaikovsky’s dance is an exoticized whirling dervish, with trumpets over an ostinato in the low strings and brass, Ellington instead lets the band break out into an improvisatory section with the clarinet in the lead.

The two marches also make for an interesting comparison—similar in spirit but executed on their own terms. Tchaikovsky’s quick marche militaire is all about precision of articulation and brilliance in figuration and orchestration. Although the brightness of trumpet also figures in Ellington’s “Peanut Brittle Brigade,” the virtuosity shines through most clearly in a series of up-tempo, boppish solo choruses for trumpet, clarinet, tenor sax, and piano.

Tchaikovsky’s indifference to his own score for The Nutcracker is famous, but the “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” allowed him to showcase a new instrument that fascinated him—the celesta—making it perhaps the only part of the score he was pleased with. The twinkling, ethereal sound of the instrument, accompanied only by delicate pizzicati, does make for a magical atmosphere—and it is here that Ellington and Strayhorn part ways with Tchaikovsky in all but the melody they borrowed. Over a slow vamp from the drummer, using the evocative toms, the tenor saxophone struts through “Sugar Rum Cherry,” encouraged by occasional smears and growls in the brass.

In the “national dances,” Tchaikovsky and Ellington drift back together, as both were well-versed in the entertainment value of music that could evoke place, race, or ethnicity. The blistering trepak of Tchaikovsky’s Russian Dance becomes the energetic bounce of the “Volga Vouty.” Ellington and Strayhorn seem to acknowledge their artifice in “Chinoiserie,” which meanders, wheezes, and pops, compared to Tchaikovsky’s swift, chattering Chinese Dance, where his unironic Orientalism is on full display. In another reversal, Tchaikovsky’s graceful, but somewhat melancholy and restrained “Waltz of the Flowers” becomes an opportunity for almost every member of the band to have a virtuosic turn in the rousing series of swing choruses that make up “Dance of the Floreadores.”

To finish their suite, Ellington and Strayhorn put a modern spin on the Arabian Dance with the sort of exoticism that would be on full display in their Far East Suite. Tchaikovsky’s low string ostinato becomes a slow groove for bass and drums and they relocate the “snake charmer” oboe melody from the end of the Arab Dance to a flute solo at the beginning of their “Arabesque Cookie.” Clarinet and bass clarinet are featured in both, and although Ellington and Strayhorn leave out some details, like the tambourine, they add their own flourishes, working with mutes and slides and allowing the tune to swing out briefly before fading away.

The process of adaptation that Ellington and Strayhorn began continues today in new productions, like the Oregon Ballet Theater’s revision of George Balanchine’s Nutcracker to exclude problematic elements like the “yellowface” of the Chinese Dance. This Christmas season, the Joffrey Ballet will premiere an entirely new scenario and choreography from Christopher Weeldon, set at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Traditions that are meant to continue bringing people together cannot remain unchanged—adding a verse to the carol only gives us a little more time to sing together.

More Pieces by Duke Ellington

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