TCHAIKOVSKY: Nutcracker / RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Christmas Eve
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Pyotr Ily'ich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Nutcracker Suite
Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908): Christmas Eve Suite
There must be something very special about Christmas in Russia. Easter may be the major festival of the Russian church year, but Christmas and, in particular, New Year are a time for seasonal celebration in the snow-bound countryside.
For many Pyotr Ily'ich Tchaikovsky seems to epitomize the spirit of Russia. While Vienna might look askance at elements in his music that critics found barbaric, nationalist Russian composers might find him tainted with something cosmopolitan. The nineteenth century had brought a surge of interest in the true Russia, both in language and in music. Tchaikovsky, however, was never a member of the group known as the Mighty Handful or The Five, nationalist composers led by Balakirev and including the chemistry professor Borodin, the alcoholic civil servant and ex-army officer Mussorgsky, the professor of military fortification Cui and the former naval officer Rimsky-Korsakov. He himself was trained in music at the new Conservatory in St Petersburg and subsequently taught at the parallel institution in Moscow. From what had become drudgery he was saved by the generous help of a benefactress, whom he never met face to face but with whom he corresponded over a long period. From 1877 he was able to concentrate entirely on his work as a composer.
The third and last of Tchaikovsky's great ballets was Nutcracker, first staged in St Petersburg on 18th December 1892. At first he found no particular attraction in the subject of The Nutcracker and the Mouse-king, based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and the first performance was, in any case, coolly received. It has since become one of the most popular of all ballets, a particular favourite at Christmas. The story opens with a Christmas party, where, as sometimes happens at parties, Clara and her brother Franz become quarrelsome and refractory when they are not allowed to take their presents, a doll and a toy solider respectively, from the room. To pacify them the mysterious Drosselmeyer, who had brought them these presents, gives the children a nutcracker, which Franz breaks, when he tries to open a nut that is too big. Clara sadly takes the nutcracker and puts it to bed with her new doll. What follows is Clara's dream. She seems to see, in the night, a battle between toy soldiers, led by the Nutcracker, and the mice under their king, the latter eventually routed. The Nutcracker, transformed into a handsome prince, takes Clara away with him to the land of the Snow-King and Snow-Queen and then, led by the Sugar Plum Fairy, to the Kingdom of Sweets.  The ballet starts with a miniature Overture, scored without cellos and double bass, setting the opening party scene.  The boys march into the drawing-room, with its Christmas-tree, as the party begins.  Probably the best known of the dances in the Kingdom of Sweets is the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, for which Tchaikovsky made use of the celesta, a new instrument he had recently heard in Paris.  There is entertainment in a Russian trepak,  an exotic Arabian Dance for coffee,  a Chinese Dance representing tea and  the curious Dance of the Toy Trumpets, in fact mirlitons, instruments that have more in common with comb and paper.  Flowers of all colours join in the Waltz of the Flowers  and all celebrate in a final dance, joined now by honey-bees and their Queen.
Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Christmas Eve was first mounted in St Petersburg in December 1895. It is based on a story by Gogol that had also served for an opera by Tchaikovsky. It was the latter's death in 1893 that opened the way for Rimsky-Korsakov to offer his own treatment of the tale, for which he wrote his own libretto, referring to the work as 'a carol come to life'. The witch Solokha, mother of the blacksmith Vakula, agrees with the Devil, angry at Vakula's caricature of him in an icon, to steal the moon, to prevent Vakula from wooing his beloved Oxana. In the moonless darkness confusion ensues in the village. Solokha, in search of a lover, entertains the Devil, hiding him in a sack when the village headman appears. He in turn is hidden in a sack when another visitor arrives, the parish clerk, to be hidden in a sack when Chub, Oxana's father, arrives, making for the Devil's sack as Vakula returns. Outside the hut carols are sung and Qxana mockingly challenges Vakula, who, unaware of their contents, has carried out the sacks and left them in the village street, to bring her the shoes of the Tsaritsa. Helped by the enforced assistance of the Devil, Vakula fulfils his mission, to be welcomed home once more by Oxana, anxious at his absence.  The Introduction sets the scene of a starry night, the snow sparkling under the light of the moon.  The Procession of the Comet  and  Polonaise, dances included in the composer's suite from the opera, lead to the final  Ovsyen and Kolyada, a celebration of New Year and of the first day of the new month.