Today’s share is possibly my favourite piece of Christmas music by one of my favourite composers. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) had already written two ballets, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, but it is arguably the Nutcracker, premiered in St. Petersburg on Sunday 18 December 1892, that is his best-know. This is due to the instant success of the suite of musical numbers taken from it, because the ballet itself didn’t go down that well at first: I suggest this is down to its structural weakness, since the first act tells a dramatic and convincing story but the second is merely a series of dances that don’t advance the action. However, those numbers are among the most famous in the classical canon, explaining why the work has met with as much success in the concert hall as it has in the theatre. You can’t say that the first-night audience didn’t get value for money: the Nutcracker went out on the same bill as Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta.
It tells the story of a young girl, Clara, who is given a nutcracker in the shape of a man by a local toymaker. Her brother breaks it on purpose, and the heartbroken girl comes down to see it again at midnight while all the family are asleep. It comes to life and prompts a battle between gingerbread soldiers and mice: the biscuits win, and Clara ‘s nutcracker is transformed into a handsome prince. He takes her to the Land Of Sweets and the two are crowned rulers. She wakes at the foot of the tree, with an ambivalent ending leaving her wondering whether it was all a dream or not.
At one time, this was the only Christmas music I had and during the festive season, I played it repeatedly, something I hope you will do too. The performance of the complete ballet is by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati: I would urge you to buy it, but the Philips Duo CD it comes from has been deleted.
Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker