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Tchaikovsky - Nutcracker Suite No. 1

1. Miniature Overture 
2. March 
3. Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy 
4. Trepak 
5. Arabian Dance 
6. Chinese Dance 
7. Dance of the Mirlitons 
8. Waltz of the Flowers 

The Nutcracker is universally popular, and (probably) the best-known of all music. As such, it probably “needs no introduction” - but it's going to get one anyway! 

Tchaikovsky, a shy, fatalistic neurotic, was inevitably going to have more than his fair share of ups and downs. In 1877 he was morally blackmailed into marriage by an admiring but mentally unstable pupil. Their opposed “preferences” soon precipitated a disastrous end to their relationship. Of course, it was far more complicated than that, but the upshot was nose-grindingly simple: Tchaikovsky was left in a state of nervous breakdown, relieved by the generosity of the mysterious, wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck. For the next three years her patronage enabled him to devote himself entirely to his art. At the end of 1890, illness forced Mme. von Meck to terminate their strange alliance. Tchaikovsky was, naturally, very upset, but was otherwise enjoying some success: conducting in Germany, France and England, a very satisfactory visit to the USA (1891), and attending a performance of his Eugene Onegin under Mahler in Hamburg (1892). 

We have a tendency to marvel at composers who produce joyful music whilst in dire straits (for instance, Mozart and Beethoven), presumably because we think that a composer's creativity should be stimulated by his personal circumstances. That this is utter tosh is borne out by countless examples. In 1892, while he started work on his Sixth Symphony, arguably his most sorrowful score, Tchaikovsky was completing his Nutcracker, arguably his happiest. Moreover, apparently he had no enthusiasm for the libretto, so here we go again, this time marvelling at how masterpieces can be born out of a sense of duty, and ignoring how often composers are inspired to produce dross! (Though not Tchaikovsky, I hasten to add). 

The Suite No.1 is what is commonly referred to as “the” Nutcracker Suite, which has been instrumental in sparking a love of music in many children down the years, though I doubt, regretfully, that it still continues this estimable service in these days of “street wisdom”. No matter, the real wonder of this music is not that it should appeal to children as such, but that it does appeal to the fabled “child” in all of us. Who can at home play the record, or now face this wonderful, living orchestra, without the anticipatory thrill of being transported back, through a haze of nostalgia, to the wide-eyed magic of Christmas Past? The very air seemed to tingle and sparkle, and the chill world seemed to glow in luminous expectancy. Tchaikovsky's miraculous blend of toytown tunes and wrapping-paper orchestration conjures the very same enchantment. How he does it is a constant source of wonder, but wonderful it is, and in this day and age it is a wonder for which I for one am increasingly grateful. 

Although a reminder is scarcely necessary, here is a brief resumé of the movements: Miniature Overture - skips delicately, the atmosphere of charmed fantasy heightened by omitting bass instruments; March - an exciting profusion of fanfares and swirling strings; Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy - the perfect application of the newly-invented celesta; Trepak - a fast and furious Russian folk-dance, spinning ever more dizzily; Arabian Dance - slow, sinuous, exotic (and just a touch erotic?); Chinese Dance - full of flute flourishes; Dance of the Mirlitons - before which there will be a short pause while you unwrap your Fruit & Nut; Waltz of the Flowers - brimming with grace and elegance, Tchaikovsky's most inspired foray into the form of the French Valse.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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