Tag Archives: folk songs

The Steamboat, the Nutcracker and Cher Dumollet: Bon voyage and Happy Christmas


On Christmas day of all days, I’ve had possibly the most interesting comment ever posted on my blog with regard to the score of the Nutcracker. Jesse Kleinman has pointed out the similarity between what is normally cited as the source for the contredanse in Act 1 of Nutcracker  (Bon Voyage, Cher Dumollet) and the New England song The Steamboat Quickstep. Both songs are nominally about boats, so is the New England song a borrowing from the French song via The Nutcracker? Maybe. But as Jesse points out, “It’s possible that Steamboat originated in Scotland and went to both France and New England”.

The Nutcracker and The Steamboat Quickstep: it’s an extraordinary connection. Even stranger is when you see the same tune turn up in Basque dancing.



Tchaikovsky’s Großvater


Tchaikovsky’s Großvater: two sources

The source of Tchaikovsky’s Großvater (the “grandfather dance” in the party scene in Act 1 of The Nutcracker, and the tune that Schumann quotes in Carnaval and Papillons)  is usually given as a song called “Als der Großvater die Großmutter nahm…”  It took me a long time to find a source, and then I discovered I had one right under my nose,

Als der Großvater die Großmutter nahm: Source 1

Tchaikovsky's Großvater dance: a source

From Erk’s book of songs

It’s my hunch that the Großvater is a combination of two songs, both of which are found in Erks Deutsche Liederschatz Vol. 1 (serendipity: I found this in a second-hand bookshop in Balham, now replaced by an estate agent). The first is, as other sources say, Als de Großvater die Großmutter nahm. But what about the second half of the tune? Or the 2/4 section at the end that you get in the Nutcracker?

The answer may be another song, Drei Reiter am Tor.


Drei Reiter am Tor: Source 2

Tchaikovsky's Großvater - a source from Erk's LiederschatzDrei Reiter am Tor from Des Knaben Wunderhorn is not as perfect a fit for the first part of the song, but it’s very similar. But the second part provides the other half of the tune that is missing in Als der Großvater die Großmutter nahm, and has a similar shape to the 2/4 section.  My volume is inscribed with an ex libris dated 1918, so it’s less than 20 years after the first production of Nutcracker. 

I wonder what the story is? Possibly Tchaikovsky knew the dance (see source 3 below) and made up a second section that had similar thematic material to the 2/4 coda, so that it would be related to the first part of the dance. The contour is generic enough that you could unwittingly create something that sounds like a German folksong by reverse-engineering the coda.

Or did Tchaikovsky deliberately mash up the two songs? Or forget which was which? If the  lyrics, as well as the tune, were in Tchaikovsky’s mind, could there be a darker layer of meaning to be mined (‘Scheiden und Meiden tut weh’, for example). The underlying 16th century (?) German folk melody has another correlate in the Saltpetre shanty (see the music here).

Tchaikovsky’s Großvater, source 3: “Characteristic songs and dances of all nations”

I’m indebted to Joy Morin, who commented on this post (click on comments/replies to see), for providing a link, in Characteristic Songs and Dances of All Nations, to a near-contemporaneous source for the nearly the whole dance from 1901. This gives the first half of the tune (Source 1) and the 2/4 section.  This is wonderful – published only eight years after the first production of The Nutcracker, it provides the proof that this was probably a currently well-known tune and dance. However, it still doesn’t explain the second half of the tune in The Nutcracker. I think “Drei Reiter am Tor” might provide the answer to that, and possibly to the source of the melodic contour of the 2/4 section.

The introduction to this book is fascinating and in places extraordinary. It’s hard to understand why an elementary music student would so urgently need to tell a mazurka from a scalp-dance, or how a music book could present material in a way that could be “repulsive”—

“A third object has been to preserve examples of the leading National Dances in an easily accessible form, to enable even the most elementary musical student to obtain a slight knowledge of the differences in, and structure of, a reel, waltz, mazurka, or scalp-dance of the Dakota Indians.

A final, and by no means the least important object, has been to try and interest the general public in National Songs and Dances, by presenting a typical selection in a manner not too scientific to be repulsive.”

From the introduction to “Characteristic Songs and Dances of All Nations” 1901.

For the pedantic, I reverted to esszetts in Großvater because I like them, and a quick Google revealed that the neue Rechtschreibung failed to get rid of them after all. Thank goodness, they’re One of my Favourite Things, as Julie would say.