Saturday 24 March 2018

Tchaikovsky's endearing 'Nutcracker' is the perfect Christmas treat

On to a winner: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
On to a winner: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

George Hamilton

If it's good enough for the ad men, it must be a pretty good tune. Are you old enough to remember 'Everyone's a fruit and nut case'? Has the music that promotes the Russian gas company caught your ear? If the answer is yes, then you know more about Tchaikovsky than you might think.

The charming commercial from the 70s had the English humourist Frank Muir extolling the virtues of a chocolate bar played to the 'Dance of the Mirlitons' (almond tarts or reed flutes, whichever takes your fancy).

Gazprom's cartoon that gets wrapped around the Champions League football springs to life with the opening bars of a famous overture.

Both are excerpts from the wonderful Christmas entertainment that is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, a fanciful fairytale that dazzles on the stage when brought to brilliant, balletic life and is equally memorable for the magical music that's at its heart.

The roots of Tchaikovsky's ballet are in a fairytale by a German romantic writer, ETA Hoffmann, whose stories also inspired music by Jacques Offenbach. Think of his 'Barcarolle'.

Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker is all about the magic of Christmas. A little girl called Clara is centre stage. Her godfather has made her a present. It's a nutcracker, done up like a toy soldier. Clara's brother gets jealous. This is better than the bugle he's been given. Between the jigs and the reels, the nutcracker gets broken. Clara is distraught, but her godfather puts the tiny soldier together again, and Clara falls asleep under the Christmas tree, with her new best friend in her arms.

On the stroke of midnight, she's suddenly awake. The room has been transformed. All the Christmas toys have come to life.

There's action all over the place. Her nutcracker soldier has to take on an army of mice.

But all's well that ends well. The nutcracker turns into a prince, and off they go on a sleigh ride through a snowy landscape to the Land of Sweets.

There, the story heads towards a happy conclusion, featuring 'The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy' (and the fruit-and-nutcase tune) along the way. And there's the silkily beautiful 'Waltz of the Flowers' -- one of Tchaikovsky's stand-out numbers -- to keep feel-good factor flowing.

But in the end there's a question left hanging. Clara wakes in front of the Christmas tree. Was it all just a dream?

The Nutcracker wasn't exactly a smash hit when it was first performed on a December Sunday in St Petersburg 121 years ago. Tchaikovsky had written with children in mind, and children featured prominently on stage. This, and the battle scene involving the mice, seemed to have brought an element of indiscipline that the regular ballet audience found unwelcome.

Audiences over the years have been more kind. It is now one of the most popular ballets of them all.

There was never any question about the quality of the music, though. Tchaikovsky himself knew he was on a winner. He reworked the best bits into the 'Nutcracker Suite', the easy way in to one of the most endearing creations in the classical canon -- the perfect Christmas treat.



Irish Independent

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