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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.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist