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Learn about the piece:

The Nutcracker, op. 71

Composed by

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky



3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion, celesta, 2 harps, strings

Composed 1892. First performance: 19 March 1892, St. Petersburg, Russia. Russian Musical Society. Peter Tchaikovsky, conductor.

notes by Dr. Philip Hoch

As we inch closer to the Holiday season, our schedules get clouded with activities, from Christmas shopping and wrapping presents to planning for Christmas Eve dinners. While we embrace the memorable Holiday season with cheer and gratitude, music unites us in body and spirit. Music can bring forth happy memories, dreams, and nostalgia that cannot adequately be described in words. For tonight’s program, we celebrate the Holiday season with joy and wonder as we hear the splendid masterwork by Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, op. 71. As a bonus, we will hear a narration curated by our own Maestro Wilson.

Tchaikovsky was a famous Russian composer from the Romantic Period. He was one of the first Russian composers to achieve international recognition. His compositions combine classical aesthetics with theatrical traditions, especially in his ballets. Composers in the history of western music have integrated these two facets into one cohesive work before, but none can compare to the remarkable creativity and ingenuity found in Tchaikovsky’s music. His music embodies a distinctly Russian style, mainly through his use of dance forms, rhythms, textures, and orchestration. These efforts directly respond to the rise in nationalism during the Romantic era—a compositional trait whose purpose is to represent interests and ideas from a particular nation or region. In Tchaikovsky’s case, he desired to express his Russian roots through a Western classical lens. Through carefully governed melodies, harmony, and other Russian characteristics, Tchaikovsky composed hauntingly beautiful works that still warm the hearts of listeners worldwide.
Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, Russia—a rural town over 1000km east of Moscow—into a family of six. His father, Ilya Petrovich, was a lieutenant colonel and engineer in the Department of Mines, while his mother, Aleksandra, took care of the ever-evolving household. Occupations from his father’s side were heavily rooted in engineering or civil service, which meant there was no room to explore music as a serious discipline. The young Pyotr gravitated towards music at a young age and desired to pursue it as a career one day. However, Russian culture at the time did not receive support from patrons to pursue careers in the arts, nor did the image of a career in the arts fare well in Russian society. Nonetheless, Tchaikovsky’s father enrolled Pyotr in piano lessons at the age of five. His teacher noted his remarkable ability to sight-read material after a handful of lessons. Pyotr was initially excited but quickly realized his musical future was limited due to societal impacts. He enrolled at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg with aspirations to become a civil rights lawyer. He graduated and worked for a firm for four years until he realized his true passion was music. Soon after, the Russian Musical Society was formed, whose mission was to foster a learning environment for students to learn the fundamental music principles of composition, harmony, and counterpoint. Tchaikovsky became a member of the society and was able to delve further into his music studies. Little did he know he would become one of the most renowned composers in the European classical traditions. Tchaikovsky was later awarded the position of Professor of Music Theory at the newly-established Moscow Conservatory. During his tenure, he continued to develop his musical training and discovered his distinctive musical voice. 
Tchaikovsky has a specific musical style. His works explore various styles in one cohesive composition, from light salon pieces to extraordinary symphonies. Most works are reminiscent of Classical themes, while others embody Romantic elements, borrowing Russian folk tunes. From a melodic perspective, the Tchaikovsky sound can be characterized as a “sweet, inexhaustible, supersensuous found melody,” according to music critic Harold C. Schonberg. Some of his melodies mimic Western styles with elongated phrases that are rich with expression, while others embody a distinctly Russian flavor through rhythm and form. Borrowing Russian themes proved challenging for Tchaikovsky, particularly for their repetitive nature. Repeating themes have been implemented in Western traditions before, but establishing a variation of the theme through extensive modulations was cumbersome. Tchaikovsky’s melodies tend to exist independently and do not succumb to structural expectations of a well-ordered sonata as previously favored by the Classical titans of Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. Instead, his repeated melodies serve theatrical purposes, generating tension with satisfactory releases to engage the listener. Tchaikovsky’s harmonies largely focus on modulation, aiming to showcase each musical section’s importance. Tchaikovsky faced a problem when incorporating modulations because they were anathema to Russian musical culture. He knew modulations maintain a harmonic interest in listeners, especially in his large-scale works such as his symphonies, concertos, and ballets. These masterpieces also showcase captivating rhythms. The rhythms are mainly dance-like, with both symmetrical and asymmetrical structures. These combine to form what David Brown notes as “synthetic propulsion”—a blend of rhythm, harmony, and melody to create one colorful work of art. These characteristics thread together to represent the great Tchaikovsky and are expressed in his most famous works, including Swan Lake (1877), 1812 Overture (1880), and his ballet, The Nutcracker, op. 71 (1892).

The Nutcracker, op. 71 is a two-act ballet Tchaikovsky composed in 1892 in Rouen, France. Ballet is, bydefinition, a dance supplemented with orchestral music. The Nutcracker was initially set to feature the choreography of Marius Petipa, but the premiere was unsuccessful. However, the music from the suite was well-received and enjoyed across the globe. The Nutcracker tells a story based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” (1816), with a few minute differences. The work is typically performed during the Holiday season because the story’s setting occurs on Christmas Eve. The melodies are memorable and iconic and fit the personality of each fictitious character in Hoffmann’s tale remarkably well, mainly through the embodied Romantic ideals of expression and emotion. The Nutcracker showcases the possibility that excellent ballet music retains its aesthetics when transplanted to the symphonic stage.

As Act I begins, we are introduced to a scene on Christmas Eve. It is cold and dark outside, and the Stahlbaum family is gathered in their parlor decorating their Christmas tree. An enormous party is about to take place in their house. The unnamed father is the town’s mayor, and one could expect a grand Christmas party at the mayor’s residence. The festivities begin, performed as a march in dance-like form by the orchestra. As the party winds down, the Stahlbaum children, Clara and Fritz, open their presents and are not incredibly amused. The grandfather clock strikes nine, and Clara’s godfather, town councilman, and magician, Drosselmeyer, arrives to give Clara and Fritz handmade dolls of superb quality. Because of their exquisite quality, Drosselmeyer takes the dolls home for the time being, which upsets the two children. Drosselmeyer instead gives them a wooden nutcracker to play with. Fritz enjoys the Nutcracker for its functionality, but Clara is deeply enamored by its stature. The careless Fritz breaks the Nutcracker and upsets Clara profoundly. Thankfully, Drosselmeyer uses his magic to fix the Nutcracker and gives it back to Clara. From there, the night winds down, and the family goes to bed.
Around midnight, Clara wakes up and returns to the parlor to check on her beloved Nutcracker. Indeed it is fixed, but she notices Drosselmeyer strangely perched on top of the family’s grandfather clock. Suddenly, the floor is filled with mice, and the Christmas tree grows enormously. Clara is transported into this strange dreamy realm where toys, treats, and decorations come alive! Clara wakes up in her dream to find herself amid a battle between the mice and gingerbread soldiers. A dual fanfare ensues in the orchestra, with drum rolls representing the gingerbread forces and ominous sounds for the evil mice. Hungry and eager to find food, the mice eat the gingerbread soldiers, much to Clara’s horror. The beloved Nutcracker appears as the commander of the gingerbread army and is joined by tin soldiers. Dolls enter the scene to assist military forces as nurses and doctors to care for the wounded gingerbread soldiers. Clara reunites with the Nutcracker, only to find him wounded. The enemy appears—a seven-headed mouse king, and advances toward the wounded Nutcracker. Clara bravely defends her beloved, throwing her slipper at the mouse king as a distraction. Her efforts are successful, and the Nutcracker stabs the mouse king, killing him and ending the battle once and for all. Suddenly, the Nutcracker transforms into a prince, and the two are led into a lush, snow-capped forest on a moonlight night. As the two enjoy the scenery, the Prince invites Clara into his kingdom, the Land of Sweets. Clara agrees to go, and their journey to the kingdom begins, concluding Act I with "Waltz of the Snowflakes."
Clara and the Nutcracker Prince arrive at the Land of Sweets in Act II. The land is filled with decadent sweet treats. The two weary travelers are welcomed by the ruler of the land, the Sugar Plum Fairy. She recognizes Clara as the heroine who saved the Nutcracker Prince during his battle with the evil mouse king. To celebrate Clara’s efforts, a grand celebration ensues full of treats from around the world with dancing and enjoyment. First, delicious chocolate from Spain enters with an energetic dance, represented by a magnificent trumpet solo. Next, rich coffee from Arabia performs, which features droning accompaniment based on a lullaby. Vibrantly flavorful tea from China then performs, full of percussive bells and an acrobatic flute. Sweet candy canes from Russia enter during the famous Trepak – a Russian dance in “molto vivace” (very lively) that grows exponentially in intensity. After the boisterous Trepak, the music returns to a subdued landscape, introducing the "Dance of the Mirlitons" (a tube-shaped candy) by a flute trio. Mère Gigogne (Mother Ginger) from France dances with her children, the Polichinelles, who emerge from her enormous hoop skirt to dance. With its graceful melody, the famous "Waltz of the Flowers" is performed, where thousands of flowers assemble to form a beautiful garland. The vivacious Pas de Deux is performed to finish the celebration, where everyone performs their final dance. Before Clara and the Nutcracker Prince return home, the Sugar Plum Fairy dances with her Cavalier in "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy", played by the hauntingly beautiful bells of the celesta. After the final dance, the Nutcracker Prince and Clara return home on a reindeer carriage. The two make it home safe and sound and Clara wakes up to a bright and shiny Christmas morning.

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