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Program Notes: The Nutcracker

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Friday, November 29, 2019 at 8:00PM

Saturday, November 30, 2019 at 8:00PM

Sunday, December 1, 2019 at 3:00PM

Andrew Grams, conductor

Barbara Berner, artistic director

Luke Kritzeck, lighting designer

TCHAIKOVSKY The Nutcracker, op. 71


composer Paul Hindemith photo
Paul Hindemith


Born May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia

Died November 6, 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia

The Nutcracker

Dance made Audible: Ballet in the Concert Hall

The choreographer George Balanchine once said that “dancing was music made visible.” The opposite is also true: ballet music is dance made audible. And while it may seem strange to be listening to an entire ballet without the dancing, this program demonstrates that great ballet music loses nothing when transferred to the concert hall.

But great ballet music shouldn’t be taken for granted. After a golden era in Baroque France (Louis XIV, the Sun King, loved to dance), ballet music slumped in reputation and quality. It took a 19th-century Frenchman, Léo Delibes, to lift ballet from its musical doldrums with Sylvia and Coppélia, and it was the Russian Francophile Tchaikovsky who followed his lead, bringing ballet music to new heights.

Tchaikovsky took ballet very seriously (he too loved to dance). Perversely, he was accused of writing symphonies that were too balletic and ballet music that was too symphonic, as if that were a bad thing. Tchaikovsky, for his part, totally failed to understand “why the expression ballet music should be used disapprovingly”—he saw ballet as an art equal to other arts. No wonder that his ballet music is as popular in the concert hall as it is in the theatre.

Struggling with the Story

The Nutcracker is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 fairy tale Nussknacker und Mausekönig (Nutcracker and Mouse King) via a French retelling by Alexandre Dumas. The original story is a rich and subtly humorous story for children while offering irony and literary allusions that only adults would understand. Ahead of its time in having no moral or didactic agenda, it blurs fantasy and reality as strange nocturnal events take place in the same world that the children inhabit.

In its translation to dance the story lost its darkly mysterious qualities, not to mention crucial backstory. (Have you ever wondered why the Nutcracker is attacked by the Mouse King?) The ballet scenario is a lopsided affair: the first act carries all the action of the Christmas Eve party and the battle with the Mouse King, while the second act is pure confection with no real dramatic significance. Tchaikovsky was deeply unhappy with the limitations it presented. Act I, for example, is entirely mimed action with a few character dances and offers no opportunity for a grand pas de deux. The inevitable result was procrastination, and at one point he asked to be released from the commission. Tchaikovsky’s final ballet score very nearly wasn’t written.

Inspiration from Tragedy

Tchaikovsky wasn’t released—he was given an extension. Then a sad event seems to have given him the impetus to finish the score. Just as he was departing for concerts in America, he learned that his beloved sister, Sasha, had died. He spent the voyage reminiscing about their childhood and it’s possible, says scholar Roland Wiley, there emerged in his mind a parallel between Sasha and the Sugar-Plum Fairy. The Kingdom of Sweets—a children’s Utopia—then represents Sasha’s estate, where Tchaikovsky had spent many happy months.

The music is scattered with clues to this. The Intrada from the pas de deux in Act II, for instance, begins with the cellos playing a “tune” that is simply a descending major scale—a “non-tune” if you like. But the banality of the melody throws attention on its rhythm, and the rhythm is that of a phrase from the Russian Orthodox funeral rite: “And with the saints give rest.” This melody is repeated with prayer-like insistence and growing intensity as the Intrada unfolds. According to Wiley, the prosody of the funeral rite would have been in Tchaikovsky’s mind and it was inevitable it would permeate the music at a point where the choreographer was calling for a majestic and “colossal” effect.

There are other clues, too, such as the Arabian Dance, which isn’t an Arabian dance at all but a Georgian lullaby—a lullaby traditionally sung to sick children. And Tchaikovsky borrows from French nursery songs, with Mother Ginger and her polichinelles dancing to “Giroflé, Girofla” and “Cadet Rousselle.” Act II as a whole emerges as a kind of nostalgic meditation on childhood pleasures, Tchaikovsky adding a hidden layer of personal significance to an otherwise superficial drama.

Reality and Fantasy

There’s also significance in the music that frames Act II: it begins and ends with a lilting barcarole. Traditionally in 19th-century ballets, a barcarole would be used to underscore a transition between worlds: life and death, waking and dreams or, as in The Nutcracker, reality and fantasy. A famous instance can be found in La Bayadere: the entry, one by one, of the ghostly temple dancers is accompanied by a barcarole. Tchaikovsky himself had used the device for the Panorama in Sleeping Beauty, when the Lilac Fairy grants the Prince a vision of the sleeping Aurora. So it can be no accident that Tchaikovsky writes a barcarole to transport Clara to and from the fantastical world of the Kingdom of Sweets—a world she thinks she’s been dreaming.

Musical Magic

Without the distractions of dancing, and the sets and costumes that can give this ballet an air of sugary superficiality, this performance highlights the depth of emotion in the music, as well as the ways in which Tchaikovsky revitalized 19th-century ballet music with techniques and strategies from symphonic music.

Central to the success of Nutcracker is the brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s orchestrations and his imaginative use of instrumental color, together with a powerful deployment of harmony for dramatic effect.

The ballet is built around two keys: B-flat major (the Overture) and E major (for the arrival in the Kingdom of Sweets). Musically, these are complete opposites—the equivalent of purple and yellow in a color wheel—allowing Tchaikovsky to play up the contrast between reality and fantasy. And it’s precisely at the moment of Drosselmeyer’s arrival at the party in Act I that Tchaikovsky shifts direction from B-flat to E, emphasizing the ambiguity and tension surrounding this character.

At the same time, Tchaikovsky uses instrumental color to establish Drosselmeyer’s identity. His entry, for instance, is accompanied by a weird but effective combination of tubas, trombones, and sinister muted horns and violas. We hear what the choreographer Marius Petipa had in mind: a character who is “serious, somewhat frightening, then comic.”

The orchestration of Nutcracker is never less than magical—not just magical in effect but magical in dramatic significance. Every time the scenario touches on the supernatural or the extraordinary, Tchaikovsky does something special in the orchestra. The Magic Castle at the beginning of Act II charms with flourishing flutes and rippling passages from the harp and celesta. For the following number where Petipa describes a rose-water fountain, Tchaikovsky creates a sweetly cascading sound in the flutes using a technique, frulato, he’d learned from a flute-playing colleague in Kiev. It’s essentially flutter-tonguing, ahead of its time.

But the most magical of all is the bell-like celesta that is the signature sound of the Sugar-Plum Fairy, heard at the beginning of Act II and coming into its own for her solo variation in the pas de deux. While in Paris, Tchaikovsky had been seduced by the “glistering tones” of this marvelous new instrument: “something between a small piano and a Glockenspiel.” Wanting to surprise Russian audiences (and his composer colleagues!) he had one shipped secretly to Saint Petersburg, refusing at first to even make it available for practice, although he did specify that the musician had to be a very good pianist! The celesta works its enchantments in the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy—a distillation of the delicate effects, exotic color, and lyricism that make Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker so irresistible.



1. Following the light-footed Overture (the cellos and double basses aren’t heard at all), the curtain rises on the mayor and his wife as they decorate the tree on Christmas Eve. Their children, Clara and Fritz, burst in with their friends and witness the illumination of the tree—an “awestruck” oboe over harp arpeggios and tremolo strings.

2. The sprightly March for the children is a middle-class echo of Bizet’s street urchins in Carmen.

3. The children’s parents arrive in fancy dress as fashionably outlandish merveilleuses and incroyables of the French Revolution. After a formal minuet they dance to a French song, “Bon voyage, M. Dumolet.”

4. The arrival of Clara’s godfather Drosselmeyer is musically intriguing and full of atmosphere and drama. He is mysterious and slightly terrifying but the mood lightens when he unboxes his marvelous mechanical toys. Clara receives a Nutcracker, which Fritz breaks when he insists on playing with it.

5. The choreographer Marius Petipa told Tchaikovsky he could pick up the sheet music for the Grandfather Dance (Grossvatertanz) from the music store! It’s a German dance, traditionally played at the end of the evening as a signal for everyone to leave. Pianists may recognize it from the conclusion of Schumann’s Papillons.

6. The guests leave and the children are sent to bed; Clara is not allowed to take the Nutcracker to her room. In this imaginatively scored scene she steals back—a sinister nocturne featuring the English horn—only to stumble upon a transformation when the triangle chimes midnight. As the Christmas tree grows in size, the strings play a rising motif and the orchestration increases in fullness and richness.

7. The parlor is overrun by the Mouse King and his army as they attack the Nutcracker and his toy soldiers. As in his 1812 Overture, Tchaikovsky creates a musical battle between two sets of themes: high-pitched fanfares and drum rolls for the toys and more ominous sounds for the mice. Clara saves the day, throwing her slipper at the Mouse King and killing him, and the wounded Nutcracker turns into a handsome Prince.

8. Clara and the Prince walk over to the Christmas tree and find themselves in a Spruce Forest in Winter. This transformation from domestic parlor to ancient wintry forest is the emotional high point of the act. Arpeggios from both harps underpin an expansive melody.

9. Waltz of the Snowflakes is a misleading name: the Prince escorts Clara to his realm not through gently falling snowflakes, but a swirling blizzard. The music begins with a suggestion of a storm before the waltz proper begins. Tchaikovsky cheekily plays with the waltz rhythm, spreading each “oom-pah-pah” across two bars of music instead of the usual one. Two minutes in, Tchaikovsky introduces a new color: a children’s chorus.


In the Kingdom of Sweets, a flimsy scenario is sufficient pretext for glorious music: the Sugar-Plum Fairy, Queen of the Kingdom, celebrates the bravery of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince.

10. The richly swirling sounds of a barcarole bring Clara and the Prince to the Magic Castle where they are welcomed by the Sugar-Plum Fairy and music of incomparable sweetness.

11. The Prince recounts the battle with the Mouse King, giving Tchaikovsky an opportunity to revisit musical themes from Act I.

12. All pretense of storytelling over, the party begins with a sequence of character dances, each confection associated with a different country.

Chocolate is given a Spanish dance with a brilliant solo for the trumpet. The coffee is evidently Arabian, although its convincingly Oriental music with droning accompaniment is actually based on a Georgian lullaby. Chinese Tea makes a fleeting appearance, a jogging number with jingling bells and an acrobatic flute. The Trepak, a Russian Dance, begins “molto vivace” (very lively) and accelerates from there. Following its rumbustious finish the music immediately takes on a dainty character for the Dance of the Mirlitons. (A mirliton is both a reed pipe, a kind of kazoo, and a tube-like pastry dessert.) A trio of flutes play perfectly coordinated arabesques while the English horn offers its poignant view of affairs. Mère Gigogne (Mother Ginger) is the French equivalent of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.

13. The Waltz of Flowers is perhaps Tchaikovsky’s most famous waltz of all and in traditional productions it fills the stage with a cast of thousands, including children carrying garlands. An effusion of melody and impetuous grace reveals Tchaikovsky in his element.

14. The grand Pas de deux is the finest music in the whole ballet. The Intrada is noble, opulent and as “colossal in effect” as Petipa had had requested. In a dance performance, the cavalier has a fleeting but vigorous Tarantella followed by the celesta’s big moment, the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy. The pas de deux ends with a coda for both dancers—cue many pirouettes.

15. The Final Waltz is more courtly in style than the Waltz of the Flowers, but no less exhilarating. In the Apotheosis the same lilting barcarolle that beckoned us into the fantastical Kingdom of Sweets escorts us back to reality.

First ballet performance: December 18, 1892, at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia

First SLSO performance: January 10, 1941, Efrem Kurtz conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: December 4, 2016, Ward Stare conducting (Act II only)

Scoring: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, castanets, cymbals, glockenspiel, rattle, small snare drum, tam tam, tambourine, 2 toy drums, triangle, 2 harps, celesta, strings, children’s choir

Performance time: Approximately 1 hour and 26 minutes

Notes by Yvonne Frindle.



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