Tchaikovsky: ``Nutcracker'' Suite

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1840-1893. Suite from the ballet The Nutcracker, Op. 71a. Completed 1892, first performance March 19, in St. Petersburg. Scored for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, glockenspiel, tympani, harp, celesta, and strings.

It may come as a surprise to many to learn that Pyotr (Peter) Tchaikovsky, one of the best-loved composers of all time, began his adult life in one of the least glamorous occupations known to man: government clerk. History has not recorded his exact assignments, however, for the man was so indifferent to his job that he later forgot exactly what it was that he had done! The young official had continued his youthful interest in music, but declared at the age of 21 that ``even if I actually had any talent, it can hardly be developed now.'' It is indeed fortunate for posterity that he turned out to be wrong! Only a year after he wrote these words, he became disillusioned by an ``unjust'' promotion over his head and entered the new Conservatory of the Russian Society of Music.

Some thirty years later, in December of 1891, the now-successful composer's new opera Pique Dame ( The Queen of Spades) so impressed the Imperial Opera Directorate that he was promptly given a commission to write both a one-act opera and a ballet for the following season. The ballet was to be based on E.T.A. Hoffman's story ``The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,'' a selection which Tchaikovsky disliked (the subject had been forced upon him). Nevertheless, he began work in early 1892 before departing on a successful tour of the United States, and completed the music later that summer, though he disparaged it as ``infinitely poorer than The Sleeping Beauty,'' a verdict with which subsequent ballet-goers have most emphatically and consistently disagreed.

An interesting footnote to the score of The Nutcracker is the famous use of the celesta in the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy. Tchaikovsky had discovered the newly-invented instrument just before departing for the U.S., and was immediately captivated by its ``divinely beautiful tone.'' He arranged to have one sent to Russia secretly, because he was ``afraid Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov may get hold of it and use the unusual effect before me.'' He needn't have worried, though, for although many other composers have written for Auguste Mustel's uniquely beautiful creation, none has been able to duplicate the magic achieved by this most passionate of all composers in his most popular work.

© 1995, Geoff Kuenning

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