Monthly Archives: May 2012

More on borrowings in the Nutcracker


I think most people know that there are quite a few musical borrowings in the Nutcracker, and that Tchaikovsky got the theme for the Arabian from somewhere – a Georgian folk song or something like that. But it’s only thanks to a post from Lawrence Sisk on the Tchaikovsky research site forum that I came to know about Ippolitov-Ivanov’s use of the same theme in his berceuse in the Caucasian Sketches (the tune starts at 00:59 – click here to jump directly to the right part).

Further to this, I’ve now come across an interesting reference to this from a 1913 interview with the conductor Modeste Altschuler, entitled The Music of the People in Russian Masterpieces.  Speaking of the role of folk singing in Russia, he says:

 If you are sick your mother sings you a song, part prayer, part superstition, part lullaby, which may do you far more good than the doctor’s drugs. There is a song for nearly every disease. For instance, if you had the measles your mother or your nurse would sing.While in Russia four years ago, I had many occasions to speak to Ippolitov-Ivanov regarding folk-songs in Russia, and he called my attention to a Berceuse, the theme of which is used by the Caucasian women as a lullaby for the children affected with the measles. Tschaikovsky has used the first four measures of the same theme in the Arabian Dance, from his Casse Noisette suite, while Ippolitov has developed it to a greater extent in his lovely piano piece. After all it is a folk-song melody, so every composer is entitled to the use of it.

He then quotes the first few bars of the Berceuse which in Ippolitov-Ivanov’s version is in F# minor:

Ippolitov-Ivanov: ‘Berceuse’, from Caucausian Sketches Op 42 No. 2 (2-piano score) via IMSLP

The connections between Ippolitov-Ivanov and Tchaikovsky are not tenuous, they are very real and documented  – they met in Tiflis, Georgia in 1886, and were in contact until Tchaikovsky’s death. If Ippolitov-Ivanov could tell Altschuler of the story of this lullaby, then he could have told Tchaikovsky. If Altschuler’s account is reliable, then this adds further weight to Wiley’s argument (see earlier post) that Act II of the Nutcracker might be interpreted as a musical idealization of  Tchaikovsky’s  childhood, a mourning nostalgia for happier times with his sister – who had died as he was composing The Nutcracker.

Wiley has a theory about the pas de deux that  the  rhythm of the pas de deux melody matches exactly the spoken rhythm of the  text of an Orthodox funeral rite. If this is correct, and the Arabian is a borrowing of a song sung to sick children, then Act II is even less  the chocolate box it appears on the surface.  There is more: it has always puzzled me that the Sugar Plum Fairy is thematically and tonally directly related to the Snowflakes, as if she’s not so much made of sugar, but of ice.  And it’s in a minor key, a comparative rarity for 19th century ballet solos, even in Tchaikovsky. Act 2 is also enclosed in two haunting,  barcarolles, symbols of journeys and transitions to other worlds.

For all this, I tend to agree with Wiley about Tchaikovsky’s borrowings and quotes – they’re not intended to rise to the surface, they are private. But they are fascinating, all the same.

On revolution in The Nutcracker and the limits of Google


French revolutionary musical borrowings in The Nutcracker —wny?

As I said in my last post, where I think I’ve discovered a French counter-revolutionary song as a source for one of Tchaikovsky’s musical borrowings in The Nutcracker, I had a vague recollection of having read about the theory of Nutcracker being an allegory of the French Revolution.  Eventually, I remembered that I’d read it in German. But two hours of Googling words that I knew were in the book came up with nothing  (for the record, this should have done it, but didn’t: <Petipa, Tschaikowski, Carmagnole site:de>). At least I remembered that the book was in the RAD library, so I went there and asked:  “About ten years ago, I read a book in German. It was silver. It was something to do with Tchaikovsky and Petipa, but that wasn’t necessarily in the title. Can you help?”

Thanks to the brilliance of the library staff, we found it. The source was Lopukhov’s notes on Petipa’s sketches for Nutcracker, published in Eberhard Rebling’s (1980) Marius Petipa: Meister des klassischen Ballets; Selbstzeugnisse, Dokumente, Erinnerungen, three pages which argue – I think quite convincingly – that Petipa’s notes clearly indicate he had  the French Revolution in mind.

In fact, Wiley does mention this very briefly  in the 1984 article I already cited, On Meaning in the Nutcracker, and cites Lopukhov as his source in a footnote, but apart from Rebling’s translation, it’s not available, and you certainly won’t find it via Google, because Rebling’s book hasn’t been scanned.

Wiley says quite rightly that a revolutionary theme would be inappropriate for an Imperial ballet theatre, but as Lopukhov says, the evidence is there. Given Tchaikovsky’s allegiances, and the nature of the quotations, is it reasonable to think that their idea was to incorporate counter-revolutionary ideas? You can’t just ignore those parents dressed as incroyables who turn up in the party scene. Directly after their appearance to polonaise-style music, the dance of aristocrats par excellence, the children dance ‘Bon Voyage Cher Dumollet’, which Lopukhov claims was a satire on the exile of Charles X to England (a claim I can’t substantiate from other sources, yet).  But then the song I identified as Reveil du Peuple that ends the party scene is also counter-revolutionary in spirit.

All the French borrowings may indicate nothing more that  Tchaikovsky was so depressed and blocked that he just picked up any theme going in order to finish a score that had become a problematic task. Between Tchaikovsky, Petipa and Vsevolozhsky, the plot, the scenes and the re-use of music for different purposes than the one it was originally intended (like the tarantella from act 1 that became the male solo in Act 2) may make the score unfathomable. But of all the borrowings, I think Le reveil du peuple is the most interesting, and the one which gives Act 1 the greatest coherence once you know what it is. The longer I live with Nutcracker, the darker and more mysterious it gets, something that Wiley’s article gets right to the heart of.

Both Lopukhov and Wiley say that there’s more to Nutcracker than meets the eye. Lopukhov says the problem with Nutcracker is not how to stage it, but to know what it means. Wiley says: ‘A persistent fault of Tchaikovsky criticism has been to point out the obvious in his work without exploring the possibility that subtle messages might be lying just below the surface.’ (1984:26).  It’s a shame that no-one seems to have taken up these thoughts since the 1980s.  And if you rely on Google, you’re unlikely to find the evidence that you’ll need to make a start.

Yet another third-party melody in The Nutcracker?


Think of the scene in Nutcracker where all the guests go to bed, and in particular the tune in the bass that repeats and fragments until everyone’s gone. Then listen to this, Le Réveil du Peuple from 1795: 

and look at this:

From The Genleman’s Musical Companion (179?)

And now compare it with this:

The Nutcracker (Taneyev reduction)

Coincidence, or borrowing?  In his article On Meaning in Nutcracker, Roland John Wiley remarks that there are more borrowings of tunes in Nutcracker than the other ballets, despite being much shorter. Tchaikovsky was, by his own admission, in a rut. He needed tunes. This hardly sounds like a tune, and it’s simple enough that it could be just musical waffle. 

Le Réveil du Peuple: why is it in The Nutcracker? 

But it does match almost note for note a line  from ‘Le Reveil du Peuple‘, reprinted in The Gentleman’s Musical Companion as ‘The celebrated French air.” Since Tchaikovsky’s sympathies were monarchist, this has potential as a theory, and it’s a nice touch that this reveil is played as the people are in fact all going to bed. It also occurs just after the comedy battle in the party scene with all the toy trumpets. 

Is Tchaikovsky having a private joke, saying ‘Calm down you lot’, or is this apparently meaningless transitional material perhaps the key that connects the reality of the party scene battle with the dreamed one that is about to occur? Is Clara’s mind beginning to turn boys and their toys into revolutionaries? Two of the characters in the party scene are called ‘incroyables, after all.   There’s a book on Tchaikovsky’s ballets which runs with a theory of Nutcracker as an allegory of the French Revolution (Petipa even wanted a carmagnole in Act II) – can’t remember what it’s called, but I will.  If this borrowing is what I think it is, then the story has more legs than you might think.    I’ve googled but I can’t find any evidence online that someone has found this tune before. Do I win a prize, or am I the last to find out?

Update 28th December 2017

Since writing this, I’ve discovered much more about Le Reveil du Peuple in Laura Mason’s book Singing the French Revolution: Popular Culture and Politics, 1787-99  (Cornell University Press, 1996), and you can read a lot of the relevant pages on Google Books. I’ve also discovered that this very post (i.e. the one you’re reading now, but not this paragraph!) is cited in Damien Mahiet’s “The First Nutcracker, the Enchantment of International Relations, and the Franco-Russian Alliance” (Dance Research 34/2 (November 2016): 119–149). You can download this excellent paper from (there’s another one there by Mahiet on Nutcracker which is equally interesting). It’s very satisfying research method to have written a speculative blog on something and then find out more about the topic by finding the blogpost cited in more scholarly places. 

Both Mason’s and Mahiet’s go into this topic far more than I am capable of, and are really worth reading if this kind of thing interests you. 

Update 29th December 2017

After updating this post, and reading all this stuff about revolutionary songs again, I thought it’s only reasonable to ask, given that there’s a mouse battle about to happen, whether Tchaikovsky was simply thinking of the tune of Three Blind Mice? Or, at least, thinking of the tune and blurring it with Reveil du Peuple.