By all accounts, Tchaikovsky struggled to compose The Nutcracker. It wasn’t his idea of an effective ballet scenario, and he was unimpressed with the choreographer Marius Petipa’s prettified storyline. Mid-composition, he learned of the death of his younger sister Alexandra. ‘Even more than yesterday, I feel absolutely incapable of depicting the Kingdom of Sweets in music,’ he wrote. But inspiration can be counterintuitive. On a good day, Tchaikovsky could write as fluently as any Victorian serial novelist, churning out forgettable piano pieces (as he put it) ‘like batches of pancakes’. Projects like The Nutcracker put him through purgatory but the result, with hindsight, was nothing less than the sound of Christmas.
Or one particular sound of Christmas, anyway. Others are available, not least Britain’s own choirboy-heavy choral tradition, with its faintly eerie atmosphere of damp mornings and cold churches. The Russian version — the Nutcrackerversion — is different. It’s a banquet on an imperial scale, served in a candlelit ballroom while stars sparkle like Fabergé diamonds against a velvet sky. Well, that’s how it always feels to me, and if that sounds decadent, it’s offset a thousandfold by the craftsmanship and compassion with which Tchaikovsky attends to every single bar.
So the curtains are drawn, the log-burner is doing its bit for global warming, and you’ve got a bottle of Stoli in the freezer that isn’t going to drink itself. How to sustain that Winter Palace vibe into the early hours? Step one is to revisit The Nutcracker itself. Over-familiarity breeds contempt, particularly if you know Tchaikovsky’s score only through the The Nutcracker Suite — essentially a short highlights package that Tchaikovsky assembled as a sort of promotional demo. Begin with those lollipop numbers, and this time savour every marvellous detail. ‘The Dance of the Mirlitons’, for example: the whipped-cream lightness of three flutes in close harmony, that plaintive cor anglais, and then — after a graceful little tumble — a string accompaniment that’s as crisp as puff pastry. It’s a regular musical millefeuille.
Then start again at the head of Act One and feel the glow of expectation and the majesty of the climaxes, as the piccolo shrills above you and the tuba slides away beneath your feet, opening vast new spaces for the imagination. Like the magician Drosselmeyer, Tchaikovsky keeps conjuring new sounds to astonish and delight. There’s an orchestra of toy instruments, a spellbound chorus in the ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’, and of course the celeste in the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’. The instrument was unknown in Russia in 1892 and Tchaikovsky had it imported under conditions of absolute secrecy, ‘in case Rimsky-Korsakov or Glazunov gets wind of it first’. Today, it’s the universal musical shorthand for wizardry — just listen to John Williams’s Harry Potter score, or any of Danny Elfman’s gothic extravaganzas.
But then, Tchaikovsky was never the sole master of this musical Fabergé style. Take the two composers that he mentioned: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and his protégé, the former child prodigy Alexander Glazunov. And try Glazunov’s Scènes de ballet, Op.52 — an outright homage to Tchaikovsky, created a year after his death. Opening with a cinematic fanfare, every woodwind colour and splash of glockenspiel is calculated with a jeweller’s precision, then polished to an enamelled St Petersburg sheen. It ends with a stirring polonaise, Glazunov progressively winding up the harmony and building layer upon layer of orchestral glitter.
There’s a polonaise in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve too. Composed in 1895, it’s the Russian fairy-tale opera in excelsis: a Gogol-inspired yarn about Vakula, a village blacksmith who outwits the Devil and then rides him through the sky to St Petersburg, where Catherine the Great rewards him with a pair of slippers for his girlfriend. English National Opera staged it in the 1980s but it’s almost never been seen in the UK since, and recordings are scarce. Not to worry, though, because Rimsky, like Tchaikovsky, compiled an orchestral suite that breathes frosty enchantment from the opening chord. And boy, does that polonaise swagger. In a magnificently brazen act of cultural appropriation, the national dance of Poland had been co-opted by 19th-century Russian composers as a symbol of loyalty to the House of Romanov.
We know how that ended, and perhaps that’s why all these old Russian fantasies are so touching. We’re hearing, at its most guileless, the sound of a wonderland as remote and as irrecoverable as our own childhood. But Vakula leaves the splendour of the imperial court behind him and flies back to his village for a sweethearts’ reunion as the bells of Christmas morning begin to chime. Tenderness and a quiet hope prevail. As Pushkin once put it (and Rimsky got an opera out of that story, too): ‘A fairy-tale, though far from true, can teach us all a thing or two.’ Have a vodka, have a listen, and have a happy and peaceful Christmas.
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The Nutcracker is at the Royal Opera House (RB) until 8 January, the Coliseum (ENB) until 8 January, the Royal Albert Hall (BRB) from 28–31 December, at Sadler’s Wells (Matthew Bourne) until 30 January, and at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, and touring (Scottish Ballet), until 12 February.
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