Tag Archives: musical surprises

Yet another source for the Nutcracker party scene tune


It’s become something of a hobby, finding sources for the tunes in Tchaikovsky’s score for The Nutcracker. I thought I’d had all the surprises there were to be had when I discovered that the source for the tune of  the children’s galop in Act I was not only the French song Bon Voyage, Cher Dumollet, but also the New England Steamboat Quickstep. Now, that Nutcracker party scene tune seems to have yet another source, or instantiation. 

If I’m not very much mistaken, here it is again, in a more modal form, accompanying a Basque dance.  Pure chance that I happened to look at this video, because someone I interviewed said that Basque dance could be very balletic, so I had a look on Youtube. And there in the middle of the first video I watched, is a little bit of Nutcracker history.

The video should start automatically at the relevant bit, at 3m16s,unless my embed-code editing doesn’t function on your device.

In fact, a quick search for ‘connections between Basque Dance and the Nutcracker’ found a comment on a recording of Nutcracker by Ladylavanda, saying that the children’s galop sounds like a traditional Basque dance called the Satan dantza.  She recommends searching for <Pastorala Xahakoa: Satanak>, and sure if enough, if you do, or if you search for Satan Dantza, you can find plenty of examples. And if you search for <Satan Dantza Cascanueces> (Nutcracker in Spanish) you’ll see a few MP3 downloads where Satan Dantza is the main title, and Nutcracker is in brackets. Here’s another even clearer example of the connection.

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.

At last: a picture of a mirliton


I can’t tell you how pleased I am about this: Here, on a site dedicated to the iconography of the bagpipe, are two pictures of mirlitons (scroll down to see them), placed as I have always suspected within the general category of kazoo-like instruments, in French termed “flûte eunuque, kazoo, mirliton ou bigophone”. ‘Danse des Bigophones’ has a certain ring, n’est-ce pas?  The pictures clearly show the the swirling stripes as they are seen in the mirliton costumes of some productions.

A history of my search for the meaning of mirliton

in case you didn’t know, I’ve been perplexed and annoyed by the term ‘Mirliton’ in The Nutcracker for years – how does this thing turn from marzipan, to reed pipes, to shepherdesses. What is a mirliton? Why do people talk about them as if we’ve all seen one (I never have). I’ve posted on mirlitons as cakes before, but I still have never seen evidence of the supposed mirliton-as-reed-pipe. My mind is finally at peace on this issue and I shall have a happier Christmas.

Update on 27th May, 2012: Here’s another  picture of a mirliton from a site about traditional instruments of the Iberian peninsula. There’s also a sound clip if you want to know what Tchaikovsky may have had in mind. Though I’m still rather convinced that the piece is a pun on Mirlitons de Pont-Audemer, as I wrote in a previous post, with a double pun lurking in the background, since pastushka (Russian for shepherdess) and pastiche (French for pastry) are so close in sound.

Musical surprises #26: The Csárdás from Coppélia is not by Delibes


A bit unseasonal this, since ‘musical surprises’ was the theme of my 2009 Advent Calendar. But I just couldn’t wait til next year to share my excitement at this one. It seems that not only is the theme of the “‘Friends” dance in Coppélia Act I  not by Delibes (called “Thème Slave varié in the score) , but the Coppélia Czardas isn’t either.

The Coppélia czardas: as printed in an earlier score by Pugni

The Coppélia Czardas – in Pugni’s “Theolinda”

The Coppélia czardas – by Pugni?

I discovered this looking through the microfilm of Pugni’s Théolinda, ou le Lutin de la Vallée (1860) [click this link if that one doesn’t work], a ballet by the choreographer and violinist Arthur St Léon.  Look on page 29-30 of Act 1, and you’ll see great unmistakeable chunks of the Coppélia czardas, including so many stylistic particulars that it can only indicate that borrowing has taken place. My guess is both Delibes and Pugni were borrowing from a third source, introduced to them by St Léon, who was the person who had told Delibes that the ‘Thème Slave’ he’d heard on his travels was a folk song. The borrowing is so obvious, and so extraordinary, I can’t believe that I can be the first or only person to notice it.  My hope is that sooner or later I’ll come across the original composer of this czardas, as others have done for the Hungarian dance No. 5  supposedly by Brahms, but in fact by Kéler.

Pedantry note: Czardas/csárdás

I originally wrote this post using the correct Hungarian spelling csárdás, but I’ve changed it to czardas more or less throughout. This spelling is more common, even though it’s wrong and archaic, partly as a result of it being spelled like that in the score of Coppélia, and in the famous Czardas by Monti.  I’ve retained the wrong spelling to make it easier for search engines to pick up this post.