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4.3.1: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - The Nutcracker

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    We’ve already encountered one ballet by a Russian composer: Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Now we will examine another. Stravinsky and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikvosky (1840-1893) are, after all, two of the bestknown ballet composers. The most famous choreographers and dancers have been mostly Russian as well. Ballet, however, originated not in Russia but in France. We will begin, therefore, with the story of how this art form ended up thriving nearly two thousand miles away from its birthplace.

    Image 4.31: This photograph of Tchaikovsky was taken near the end of his life. Source: Wikipedia Attribution: Unknown License: Public Domain


    Ballet’s origins can be traced to European courts of the 15th and 16th centuries, where dance became increasingly formalized and dramatic. Early ballets, however, were quite different from the art form we might be familiar with: Dancers wore regular shoes and clothing, the steps were taken from participatory court dances, and spectators usually joined in for the finale. Court ballet reached its pinnacle under Louis XIV, who ruled France from 1643 to 1715. He was an avid dancer, and frequently took leading roles in the productions. Louis XIV also sponsored the first professional ballet company, which was attached to the Paris Opera. The two genres—opera and ballet—were closely related in this period: French operas always contained extended dance numbers, while court ballets included singing.

    Image 4.32: These students at Escuela Superior de Música y Danza are performing the Dance of the Snowflakes from The Nutcracker in 2010. Source: Wikimedia Commons Attribution: Gabriel Saldana License: CC BY-SA 2.0

    Ballet as we know it today emerged in the second half of the 18th century, when a series of reforms were enacted by ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre. Noverre sought to make ballet more expressive and realistic by replacing the heavy costumes with light, form-fitting apparel, doing away with masks, and introducing the use of pantomime and facial expressions to communicate dramatic elements. The early 19th century saw the invention of the pointe shoe, which allows female dancers to balance on their toes, and the tutu, which accentuates their graceful movements and reveals the legs.

    Soon, however, ballet in France was faltering. In seeking to compete with opera, ballet promoters were not successful. Ballet’s association with the aristocracy made it distasteful to French audiences of the late 19th century, and it was generally considered to be less expressive than opera—and therefore inferior. Ballet might have vanished completely were it not for Russian interest in the art form. Beginning in the late 18th century, Russian courts sought to establish their cultural credentials by importing European art forms. First, they brought in Italian opera. In the mid-19th century, they turned to French ballet.

    Tchaikovsky’s Career

    At first, the Russian ballet establishment was managed by French choreographers, scenarists, dancers, and composers. Gradually, however, Russians took over, and ballet became a distinctively Russian art form. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was among the first Russian ballet composers, and his three masterpieces—Swan Lake (1877), Sleeping Beauty (1890), and The Nutcracker (1892)—are still frequently performed today.

    Tchaikovsky, however, did not particularly care for his ballet scores, and he disdained their popularity. He would much prefer to have been remembered for his six symphonies, which he considered to be his greatest works. Tchaikovsky also wrote programmatic orchestral pieces, operas, and chamber music—in fact, he composed in all of the prominent European genres of the 19th century. Unlike Russian composers such as Modest Mussorgsky (discussed in Chapter 6), who rejected European influence, Tchaikovsky sought to follow in the European tradition.

    Tchaikovsky was firmly entrenched in Russia’s European-style musical establishment. As a young man, he was at first frustrated in his desire to pursue a career in music by the fact that there were no opportunities to study music in Russia. He instead embarked upon a career in the civil service, but in 1862 was able to enroll in the first class at the newly-opened St. Petersburg Conservatory. He impressed his teachers, and upon graduating was offered a teaching position at the Moscow Conservatory, which opened in 1866. Tchaikovsky went on to establish an international reputation as a composer, although he faced criticism at home for not being “Russian enough” in his musical expression.

    It is no surprise that Tchaikovsky did not care for ballet work, for in the creation of a ballet, the composer found himself at the bottom of the hierarchy. Most of the creative work was completed by the scenarist (who outlined the dramatic contents of the ballet) and the choreographer (who designed the dance). The Nutcracker was conceived of by the renowned scenarist Marius Petipa, who chose and adapted the story, decided how it would be told through the ballet medium, and established a character for each of the dances. He went so far as to provide Tchaikovsky with the exact tempo and duration for each number, leaving the composer with little opportunity for creative expression. All the same, Tchaikovsky—who, while working on The Nutcracker, wrote to a friend that “I am daily becoming more and more attuned to my task”—was able to produce distinctive music that has charmed listeners for over a century.

    The Nutcracker

    The short story on which The Nutcracker was based required a great deal of alteration to become appropriate for the ballet stage. Indeed, the plot of The Nutcracker bears little resemblance to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” (1816), which can be categorized as a horror story. In Hoffmann’s account, a young girl, Marie (Clara in the ballet version), is subjected to terrifying nighttime encounters with the seven-headed Mouse King, who repeatedly threatens her. The tortuous plot hinges on a curse that transforms characters into hideous creatures with giant heads, gaping smiles, and long white beards. At the end of the story, Marie breaks the curse by pledging her love to the toy nutcracker that was given to her at Christmas by her godfather, the mysterious inventor Drosselmeyer.

    Petipa (following an earlier adaptation by Alexandre Dumas) stripped this narrative of its horror elements, thereby transforming it into a family-friendly story about Christmas magic. The first act takes place at the home of Clara Stahlbaum, where guests have assembled for a Christmas Eve celebration. Drosselmeyer provides wonderful gifts for all of the children, including a nutcracker, to which Clara immediately becomes attached. After the party, Clara returns to the parlor to visit her nutcracker, where she witnesses a ferocious battle between the nutcracker—grown to life size and revealed to be a prince—and the Mouse King. She intercedes on the nutcracker’s behalf and he emerges victorious.

    Image 4.33: This scene, taken from a 2014 production by the New Mexico Dance Theater, includes Drosselmeyer, Clara, and the Nutcracker Prince in his human form. Source: Wikimedia Commons Attribution: Larry Lamsa License: CC BY 2.0

    In the second act, the Nutcracker Prince takes Clara to his kingdom, the Land of the Sweets, where she is welcomed and celebrated. The courtiers put on a show for her to demonstrate their gratitude, presenting a series of dances while she and the Prince sit upon thrones. At the end of the ballet, Clara returns to her home—awakening, perhaps, from a fantastic dream.

    The Nutcracker was premiered as part of a double-bill at the Imperial Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. The other item on the program was Tchaikovsky’s newest opera, Iolanta, making for a complete evening of entertainment lasting about three hours. The premiere was not a success. Critics lambasted the dancing, the choreography, the adaption of the story, the sharp contrast between the acts, the prominence of children onstage, and the neglect of the principal ballerina, who, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, does not dance until nearly the end.

    The music, on the other hand, was well-received, and Tchaikovsky was quick to salvage his work by transforming it into an orchestral suite that could be performed on concert programs. It was in this form that The Nutcracker first became popular. The Nutcracker was not staged again as a ballet until 1919, and did not enter the regular repertoire until 1934. A 1944 production by the San Francisco Ballet introduced it to American audiences. The New York City Ballet began offering annual performances in 1954, and the tradition of staging The Nutcracker during the Christmas season soon began to take hold across the United States. Today, The Nutcracker attracts millions of patrons every year, and is responsible for a large portion of the ticket sales by American ballet companies.

    We will be taking a look at Act II of The Nutcracker. We will begin with the opening scene, in which Clara and the Prince arrive in the Land of the Sweets. Then we will examine part of the “Grand Divertissement” (that’s “grand entertainment” in English) that is staged for their amusement.

    Act II: Introduction

    Tchaikovsky opens Act II with harp arpeggios and a sweeping, romantic melody in the violins. Sustained pitches in the brass create a sense of calm and repose. When Clara and the Prince arrive onstage, they use pantomime and facial expressions to indicate their wonder at beholding the magical kingdom, while the music intensifies in excitement with the addition of ascending flourishes in the flutes and piccolo. Magical sounds are created by violin harmonics (a technique by which the player lightly touches the string to produce a high, wispy sound) and celesta, a keyboard instrument that produces bell-like sounds when hammers strike resonant metal bars. Tchaikovsky associated this instrument, invented in Paris in 1886, with the Sugar Plum Fairy, and he was the first to use it in a major work.

    Excerpt from Act II of The Nutcracker Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Performance: Semperoper Ballett



    What to listen for


    Introduction to Act II

    Clara and the Prince are welcomed to the Land of the Sweets



    The Prince tells the story of his victory over the Mouse King; we hear music from Act I



    The dancers for the “Grand Divertissement” are introduced to Clara and the Prince


    Chocolate (Spanish dance)

    The melody is introduced by the trumpet, while castanets are heard throughout


    Coffee (Arabian dance)

    A chromatic melody, heard first in the violins and later in the double reeds, floats above a droning rhythmic ostinato punctuated by tambourine strikes


    Tea (Chinese dance)

    This dance pairs a flute/piccolo melody with pizzicato strings and a simple ostinato in the

    1:00’16” Trepak

    Russian The fast-paced Trepak, which uses the entire orchestra, grows in intensity before culminating in a raucous final chord


      End of listening guide

    The entrance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, who has been ruling the Land of the Sweets in the Prince’s absence, is marked by another special effect (flutter tongue) in the flutes. She proceeds to greet Clara and the Prince, as do the subjects of the court. Next, the Prince tells the story of his battle with the Mouse King. He cannot use words, of course, so he reenacts the conflict in pantomime. He is aided by the orchestra, which repeats music from the battle scene—music that the audience heard only twenty or thirty minutes before and will easily recognize.

    There has been dancing throughout the procedures thus far, of course, but nothing that could be described as a formal dance number. One of the challenges faced by any scenarist in designing a ballet is coming up with excuses for carefullychoreographed dance numbers. Ballet audiences enjoy the drama, but they want to see some good solo and ensemble dancing, not just pantomime. Petipa solved this problem by crafting a “Grand Divertissement” in which a series of dances are performed for Clara and the Prince. This “show within a show” is ostensibly put on for the benefit of the couple, but is in fact directed at the audience in the theater.

    The “Grand Divertissement” consists of a diverse collection of themed dances. The first three dances are named after foods appropriate to the Land of the Sweets: chocolate, coffee, and tea. For each of these, Tchaikovsky drew inspiration from the lands from which these foods came: Spain, Arabia, and China. These are followed by a Russian dance, the “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” and a dance known as “Mother Ginger and the Little Clowns.” We will focus our attention on the first four dances for the purpose of considering how Tchaikovsky approached the task of representing national identity in music.

    Act II: Chocolate

    The Spanish dance is vibrant and exciting. The melody is first heard on the trumpet—an instrument that is not necessarily associated with Spanish music, but which introduces a bright timbre and sets the number apart from what has come before. The harmonies are simple and repetitive, suggesting a sort of generic “folk” style. What really marks the music as “Spanish” is the use of castanets, which are heard nowhere else in the ballet. Castanets are a simple percussion instrument

    Image 4.34: The Spanish dance often features flamenco-inspired costumes. Source: Flickr. Attribution: Gabriel Saldana License: CC BY-SA 2.0

    that consists of two concave pieces of wood. These are held in one hand and clapped together. Castanets are particularly associated with the Spanish tradition of flamenco, which encompasses unique forms of guitar playing, singing, and dancing. By prominently featuring castanets, Tchaikovsky clearly signalled to his audience that the music and dancing were meant to be Spanish.

    11. In this example, a guitarist and castanet player perform “El Vito.”

    12. In this example, the guitarist is accompanied by hand clapping, singing, and the rhythmic footwork of the dancer.

    But how successful was he in replicating the sounds of flamenco music? We might compare Tchaikovsky’s music to a performance by flamenco musicians of the folk song “El Vito,” which dates to the 16th century. This rendition is typical of Spanish music in several ways. It is in a minor mode, with the melody supported by characteristics harmonies. The guitar player executes dissonant strums. And the castanet player provides complex accompanying rhythms. The performance of flamenco most often incorporates dance as well, and there is a rich vocabulary of movements and rhythmic steps that accompany and express the music. Next to these examples, Tchaikovsky’s Spanish dance sounds comically cheerful and simplistic.

    Act II: Coffee

    Next is the Arabian dance. This time, Tchaikovsky employs a variety of compositional techniques to signal to his listener that this is “Middle Eastern” music. The low strings play a repeating rhythmic ostinato that produces a hypnotic

    Image 4.35: The Arabian dance often emphasizes sensuality and mystery. These dimly-lit performers are wearing typical costumes. Source: Pexels. Attribution: Ermelinda Maglione License: Pexels License

    effect. The ostinato features the interval of an open fifth, which leaves the question of mode open: we could be in major or minor. The ostinato also eliminates the possibility of complex harmonies, for we are to dwell on the same partial chord for the entire piece. Over the top of this, we hear a modal violin melody that incorporates both the raised and lowered seventh scale degrees and is characterized by unusual rhythms and phrasing. The melody prominently features the interval of an augmented second, which is seldom heard in European music, and it is scattered with trills. The melody is bookended by a repeated motif

    from the clarinets and double reeds and punctuated by the jingle of a tambourine. Later, the melody is echoed in the oboe and the bassoon. A modal shift concludes the dance on a major harmony.

    For an example of authentic Middle Eastern music, one can refer to the discussion of Turkish makam music in Chapter 8. Many of Tchaikovsky’s strategies for representing the Middle East in sound are indeed rooted in genuine practice. The tambourine, for example, features prominently in Persian and Turkish music. Likewise, Middle Eastern compositions use modes other than major and minor, and their melodies often feature augmented seconds. The trill is not an uncommon ornament in some instruments, such as the flute, and an ostinato sometimes provides a musical backdrop for improvisation. Finally, double reed instruments such as the sorna are native to the Middle East.

    In short, Tchaikovsky captures the sound of Middle Eastern music with considerable success. The main differences between the genuine article and Tchaikovsky’s imitation are the different timbres of the instruments, the inauthentic complexity of Tchaikovsky’s orchestration, and the Western intonation of the orchestral players, who do not tune their pitches in the same way as members of a takht ensemble.

    All the same, Tchaikovsky contributes to a musical stereotype that casts Middle Eastern music as static and hypnotic. While it can have these characteristics, it usually does not. Unfortunately, these have become the hallmarks of Western imitations, with the result that a rich music tradition is reduced to a handful of cliches.

    Act II: Tea

    Next up is the Chinese dance, representative of tea. Tchaikovsky again makes use of an ostinato—this time, a rapid oscillation between the first and fifth scale degrees by the bassoon player. Above this we hear a high melody in the flutes and piccolos, punctuated by pizzicato from the strings. As the music grows in intensity, clarinets provide an arpeggiated accompaniment while bells sparkle alongside the flutes.

    For an example of authentic Chinese music, we need only look to the previous example in this chapter. Any listener will immediately note that the Tchaikovsky’s dance has little to do with actual Chinese music. His choice of flutes for the melody might bring to mind the bright timbres often favored in Chinese music, but the similarity ends there. The steady rhythm, choice of scale, texture, and repetitive form all suggest that he had never actually heard Chinese music at all—or at least had no interest in creating a faithful reproduction.

    Creating a faithful reproduction, of course, was never Tchaikovsky’s goal in any of these cases. Whether or not he accurately reflected the music of the cultures he parodied was purely incidental. Tchaikovsky’s only task was to entertain the Moscow audience members that purchased tickets to see the ballet. His audience was Russian, and he knew that they enjoyed exotic escapism as part of their theatrical entertainment. They were not alone.

    Exoticism—the use of stereotypes to portray other cultures as exciting or mysterious—has a long history in European music, and especially in music for the opera stage. European audiences of the 18th and 19th centuries were intrigued by the cultural practices of distant lands, and they had a limitless appetite for their representation in the arts. The East held particular fascination, such that the term orientalism has been coined to describe the stereotyped representation of Eastern cultures. Such representations, however, are seldom accurate or flattering. Instead, exoticism dehumanizes its subject so as to provide an escapist experience to the consumer. Europeans often perceived exoticized subjects as sexually licentious, primitive, and driven by their emotions— or, to put it another way, free from the strictures of society. In this way, exoticized subjects became an object of both adoration and loathing. They could give in to temptations that were denied to European viewers, but only because they were less than human.

    Image 4.36: These dancers, who appeared in a 2012 concert performance of the Chinese dance, are wearing typical costumes and making a hand gesture that is often incorporated into Nutcracker choreography. At what point do these common presentational tactics become offensive, or downright racist? Source: Marine Corps Attribution: Isis M. Ramirez License: Public Domain

    All of this might seem a bit tangential to The Nutcracker, which, after all, tells a charming story set in an imagined candy land, but it is not. The ballet’s representations of exoticized others—whether Romani people of Spain, or Arabs, or Chinese—contributes to a centuries-long practice that can still dehumanize these people today. This is best exemplified by a current controversy surrounding the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Chinese dance, which usually relies on stereotyped costumes, makeup, and choreography that many people find offensive.

    In 2017, was founded specifically to advocate for changes in how the Chinese dance is presented in productions of The Nutcracker. The organization encourages arts leaders to sign the “Final Bow for Yellowface” pledge, which is a commitment to end racist representations of the Chinese characters. It also provides resources for creating new costumes, makeup, and choreography for use in Nutcracker productions that reflect genuine Chinese cultural practices instead of racist stereotypes. The movement has gained support, but most productions— including that associated with this text—continue to present a stereotyped visual representation of Chinese culture alongside Tchaikovky’s musical one.

    Act II: Trepak

    In this video, you can see the kind of folk dance that inspired Tchaikovsky’s Trepak.

    The final selection from the “Grand Divertissement” that we will examine here is the Russian dance, or Trepak. This time, Tchaikovsky took a model closer to home, for this dance is based on local Russian and Ukrainian folk practices.13 Unsurprisingly, the Russian dance is Tchaikovsky’s best imitation of the “real thing.” Both his Russian dance and the authentic trepak are fast-paced and in duple meter, with a driving rhythm suited to high-energy dancing. We again hear the tambourine—now a symbol not of the Middle East but of native folk culture.

    This page titled 4.3.1: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - The Nutcracker is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Esther M. Morgan-Ellis with Contributing Authors (University of North Georgia Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.