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7. Tchaikovsky – “The Nutcracker” Suite, Op. 71a

June 3, 2011

Many of Tchaikovsky’s works are among the most widely-recognized pieces in all of classical music. Un-scientifically, The “1812 Overture” and “The Nutcracker” ballet music probably hold 2 of the top 5 of this measure (at least on a “highlights from…” basis). You’ve probably heard bits and pieces on TV (especially during the wintertime), and it was also featured in the original “Fantasia,” if you saw that.

Firstly, a Ballet, by some lay definition, is work incorporating dance, music, and storytelling. Typically, ballets are the result of collaboration between a composer and a choreographer. You really have to be in the theater to get the full experience of the work, but the music to this ballet holds very strongly on its own, often performed in a reduced version as “The Nutcracker Ballet Suite,” which contains excerpts of the full ballet music, but re-tailored to better fit a concert program.

These pieces are all relatively short – some almost “miniatures.” So we’ll look at a bunch of the 8 movements, but not all of them.

“The Nutcracker” Suite, Op. 71a – 2. Marche

Listen for the different sections of this movement – in more formal language, it’s in ABA form, also known as Ternary Form. There’s an opening idea (A), followed by something different (B), and then a return to the A idea.

In the opening A section, the brass (led by trumpets) play the dominant role, and strings answer them in a secondary/answering role. The woodwinds are less obvious, taking a more background/textural role. Listen for the very rhythmic, punctuated, maybe “angular” feel of the main A theme.

The brief B section, which shifts to a minor key, features a very “chatty” exchange between flutes and violins. Here, the brass take the back seat.

The last A section closely resembles the opening, but louder with the brass, and also you hear the strings doing this wild “flying” scale thing. This effect has Tchaikovsky’s fingerprints all over it, I think.

“The Nutcracker” Suite, Op. 71a – 3. Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy

And instantly, we’re transported to a totally different world. Are we underwater? Is it nightime? Are we floating? What’s that moving around, and how does it move? If the March movement was “yellow,” perhaps, what color is it now? There’s just a magical quality to this that you just can’t quantify! Tchaikovsky was one composer who you could say was really good at “painting with sound” – creating all sorts colors, textures, moods, and landscapes.

If you’re wondering, that instrument is a celesta – a relative of a piano where the hammers, instead of hitting strings, hit metal plates, like a metal xylophone. Not an instrument that you come across a lot, but Tchaikovsky took an unusual instrument and built an extraordinary scene with it.

“The Nutcracker” Suite, Op. 71a – 4. Russian Dance (Trepak)

You definitely know this one. As we’ve seen before, Tchaikovsky showing his forceful side at his best, knowing how to create excitement, and build it up to a thrilling ending. Take note of what the percussion section (especially the timpani drums) adds when they make their entrance. Of form, this movement is also in an easy-to-follow ABA structure – listen for the changes in “roles” as the piece progresses. And then just enjoy the huge ending.

“The Nutcracker” Suite, Op. 71a – 7. Dance of the Reed-Flutes

And another new “scene” – let’s talk instruments here. In the main A theme, a trio of flutes carries the melody, and they’re accompanied by pizzicato (pits-ih-COT-toe) strings – plucked with a finger, rather than played with a bow. The second time around, the lower strings (cello and bass) continue the accompaniment, while the upper strings, violins and violas, do some interplay stuff with the flutes. B section follows with trumpets leading a new melody in minor, and then we’re led safely back to the A section. Listen for the english horn at 0:44 – tiny little part, but it’s a nicely contrasting tone color amid all the light and airy “bounciness” going on. And again, enjoy all the nice colors and textures going on, and appreciate how imaginative and visually evocative Tchaikovsky’s writing is.

“The Nutcracker” Suite, Op. 71a – 8. Waltz of the Flowers

Lastly, another very famous one of this set. Check out the big harp cadenza in the beginning – i’m sure that this passage has become an almost archetypal idea of the sound of the harp, if that makes any sense. After that, we get started, when the french horns begin the “real” waltz part. Musically speaking, a waltz is a dance that is in 3-beat meter, to which you can count a quick 1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3. Said less technically, a waltz also has a kind of “spin” to it that other dances don’t have (in contrast, the dance of the reed flutes is metered in a slower 1-2-1-2). Once again, this piece has very clear contrasting sections – what does each one “say?” Listen for the woodwind opening, harp cadenza, horns with melody, strings “open up” the waltz, lighter flute melody, “heavy” new melody from cellos and violas, lighter response from violins, bigger and more triumphant ending.

Next: Wrap-up of Tchaikovsky, and further suggested listening

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