I dislike the free-wheeling use of the term “old chestnut” to describe a piece of music that’s been played more often than some would like. At the same time, while I wouldn’t call it a chestnut (“classic” would be more fitting), there came a point when I’d heard Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto so often I doubted I’d ever want to hear it again.
Come December, I can turn into a positive curmudgeon about the seasonal music on offer. I recognize there are much-loved traditions, but this last holiday season I was relieved to find a David Lang alternative to the plethora of Nutcrackers (not to mention Messiahs) on offer.
Sometimes a work can sink under the weight of its own popularity. In Tchaikovsky’s case, the Disney-fication of his ballets, however cute the cartoons may be, doesn’t help the cause for listening to the music, at least not for me. Which is all to say that, in my listening habits, I’d set Tchaikovsky aside some time ago and went on to other things.
Tchaikovsky started to sneak back into my attention as the result of the kind offices of David Nice. First, it was the opera Pique Dame (I confess I only knew it as The Queen of Spades, and the title was all I knew). Nice posted an irresistible frontispiece of a vocal score he’d brought back from Petersburg and advised he’d be talking about the opera on BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library. His recommendations for recordings of the opera included one in a comprehensive Brilliant Classics set of Tchaikovsky’s works.
I wrote to say I’d enjoyed the broadcast and had tracked down the Glyndebourne DVD of the opera he’d also mentioned. We then had this exchange:
David: What – so you’re NOT splashing out on the 60-CD Brilliant set? Rather uneven, I have to say, but with enough great performances and rare rep to make it worth the price of something like £2 per disc.
I replied: You are too much! I admit it’s true, but it’s only because I tied myself to the mast. (I did once buy a 20 CD set of music in order to get hold of one piece that could be found nowhere else, so you never know . . .)
It’s true, I was tempted to buy the Brilliant Set, but the 20 CD set I do own (not Tchaikovsky, something else) sounded a cautionary note. After a once-through to hear what was there, I’ve listened to little of it since. Not to mention that I already had a whole lot of music cued up on my to-do listening list—several lifetimes’ worth, in fact.
Well, next I knew, Nice’s recommendations had me listening to Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony and Tempest (the latter of which I put on my 2011 year-end list). More recently, I started in on the other symphonies, beginning, again as the result of a prompt from Nice, with No. 4. There go my 21st century street creds, I thought. Shostakovich or Stravinsky, maybe, but all this Tchaikovsky? Now that’s really “trousers rolled.”
To complicate matters further, Nice reported this past December on a new CD set of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, “which the more I hear it,” he wrote, “the more I’m convinced is his meisterwerk.” Based on Nice’s track record of listening recommendations, I knew attention must be paid. Not only that, but the CD set came with Nice’s liner notes. No matter what I ended up thinking about the music, these I had to have, and I was right: Nice’s extraordinary liner notes could keep a person busy for the hundred years Princess Aurora slept.
Unlike what’s heard in performance, the CD contains all the music Tchaikovsky wrote. The full score delivers enchantment from beginning to end. As I listened, I was astounded by the range in moods and methods Tchaikovsky brought to the ballet. With Nice’s liner notes to guide me, the Pas de Six, where the fairies offer their christening gifts, revealed not only a dance of fairies, but also a dance of instruments. These included, among others, the sinuous clarinet in the Adagio, the Fée aux Miettes–qui tombent (the fairy of generosity) letting “the breadcrumbs of the title drop pizzicato against low chords from trombones and tuba [Nice, p. 12],” and a chirping piccolo for the Canari qui chante (the fairy of eloquence)—not to mention the Fée des Lilas’ (Lilac Fairy’s) sumptuous waltz.
Nice scatters delectable musical breadcrumbs throughout the notes, including references to composers ranging from Lully to Shostakovich, like this about the music for Tom Thumb (Pas Berrichon): “The young Shostakovich was fascinated by the [unisons] hurled around the orchestra as Tom Thumb dons the Ogre’s boots and strides away . . . [Nice, p. 17].” Pas Berrichon, he notes, is almost always cut from performances of the ballet, and what a shame.
Nice points to the modern in the work, as well. In Act III, The Sapphire Fairy is given “a racy number in the unusual metre of 5/4 . . . . And devilishly difficult it is to dance to—hence its usual absence from productions [Nice, pp. 16-17].” Also in Act III, Puss in Boots emits “mewings that at first verge on the atonal [Nice, p. 17].”
I haven’t been to a ballet in perhaps thirty years, but after listening to The Sleeping Beauty CD several times, I had to see it, too. Nice came to the rescue here, as well, with a 1994 Royal Ballet production (US Canada; all regions version here) designed by Maria Björnson. As always, the music isn’t delivered whole, but there’s plenty of the score to hear, all beautifully played. The dancers are elegant and graceful to a person, and Björnson’s set design and costumes are fairy-tale perfect.
I often wonder how anyone spots a masterpiece. What are the indicia? Isn’t it, more often than not, a matter of time and taste? With Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, I get the idea. This is a piece of infinite treasure, and, with Nice’s liner notes in hand, each listen (and look) takes you in more deeply than I’d thought imaginable.
Tchaikovsky’s music not only builds beautifully on what’s gone before, but also brilliantly anticipates what is to come. Nice writes, “the ballet constitutes an inventory of what at that time were new and unorthodox groupings of instruments, and went on to inspire a new generation of composers, among them Stravinsky, who declared The Sleeping Beauty to be Tchaikovsky’s chef d’ouevre [Nice, pp. 10-11].”
Along the way, there are waltzes galore, not to mention an exuberant Polonaise (Polacca):
Postscript: For those who may be wondering, while I haven’t snapped up the Brilliant Classics set as yet, I’m saving my shekels, and it’s now on my list.
>For selections from The Sleeping Beauty (Dorati/Concertgebouw recording), click here.
>For works by Tchaikovsky mentioned in the post (including the Countess’s aria from Pique Dame), click here.
>Bonus Tracks: in one post, Nice identified a series of symphonies, including Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, that moved musically from “darkness to light.” Listening to them together is a revelation. To hear them, click here.
> Pas de Six (Variations I-VI; does not include Intrada-Adagio or Coda)
(To see a performance of Pas Berrichon, click here and go to 4:24.)
>The Sapphire Fairy (1:52-2:33)
Credits and Copyright
All quotations and images credited to David Nice are © David Nice. Please respect the copyright and do not use the quotations or images without Nice’s express permission, which may be requested here. With grateful thanks to David Nice for permission to display the images of the score frontispiece and the Björnson set, which may also be found here and here. Except for exchange of comments and the “meisterwerk” quotation, which may be found here and here, the quotations from Nice are from the liner notes [page numbers are bracketed with each quote] that accompany the Chandos Tchaikovsky: Sleeping Beauty/Jarvi, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra CD, which may be found here.
20 CDs for one CD, that’s pursuit indeed. His work is new to me, not one to be found easily around here except as you mention, background score in films.
“Sometimes a work can sink under the weight of its own popularity.” So true. And eventually they acquire the sound equivalent of ‘cliche’. I prefer using ‘classic’ as well.
Anil: Even more insane, it was 20 CDs for one track! Interesting that Tchaikovsky’s work is not so available where you are–though, when I think about it, perhaps not surprising. Perhaps sometime you’ll write about “serious” music, for lack of a better word, that is significant where you live. I’d enjoy learning about that.
Shucks, what can I add? Except to say, isn’t this what blogging’s all about? Sharing enthusiasms, guiding each other to things we love? Without you, I would never have encountered, among many other things seen, read and heard, Dylan Mattingly’s Atlas… nor gone about trying to get it a hearing here (so far, I admit, without success, but I’ll keep trying).
To be fair to Disney, though I’ve seen a comment on line referring to the ‘Once Upon a Dream’ waltz, he does use some of the more interesting passages in the score: I probably saw the film before I heard the music to the complete ballet, and was excited by the gallopping music (towards the end of Act 2) where the prince goes charging up the staircase to find his princess.
PS – your diligence and technical savoir-faire amaze me: I only just noticed that you’d put up ALL the darkness-to-light symphonies to hear. And you drew my attention to a faux-pas on my part: there can’t be any such thing as ‘unison chords’; ‘unisons’ would have sufficed…
David: You are so right, and the exploration of Tchaikovsky here is a case in point, for you are the source for it all! It was fascinating to me, as I started to put together this post, how much I’d learned from you about Tchaikovsky’s music (among so many other things). Quite a rich and varied trail, for which I thank you immensely. Interesting what you write about Disney–at some point I suspect I’ll follow that lead up as well. You keep me very, very busy, in the best possible way. (In that regard, of course I couldn’t resist putting together a playlist of your darkness to light symphonies . . .)
PS: No matter what the outcome re Atlas, your efforts to get it heard mean more than I can say. It’s a great pleasure to share enjoyment of Mattingly’s music with you. (A new piece of his will be performed at Bard next month. I’m very much looking forward to that.)
Thanks for this, Sue. I will listen to all today. I love Tchaikovsky and have always been enamoured of The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty because of a childhood memory. I have these two albums in vinyl but love hearing other recordings, so this post is quite a treat for me.
T.: And you are really in luck if you still have a turntable on which to play those vinyls! Mine stopped working at some point, unfixable. It was a watershed moment, for sure. I hope you are able to get hold of the CD, not to mention the gorgeous DVD. I think, from what you write here, you, particularly, would appreciate them both.
I am no longer sure what to to comment on in your posts. All I can say is that I still enjoy Tchaikovsky’s music even if it has gone a bit hoary and hackneyed. Watching a performance of Sleeping Beauty (or even Nutcracker), I catch myself being as entranced as ever.
While your depth of knowledge is far beyond anything I have ever had, my lack might also be the reason for simple-mindedly appreciating old-men’s-music. Your enthusiasm is palpable, your thirst for deep penetration into the intricacies of the score is entirely admirable but, I am ashamed to say, my life-time hasn’t enough hours left in it to study music as you do.
Here’s the proverbial idiotic reply “I don’t know anything about art/music/literature but I know what I like”. For the most part I make fun of people who trot out this platitude but you make me realise that it’s me, more often than not.
PS: we have just booked tickets for a chamber music evening of Mozart, Beethoven and Debussy. How boring can you get?
PPS: yes, you can see the church beyond the castle.
Lot of love and stay as delightfully enthusiastic as you are.
Friko: Ah, but methinks thou doth protest to much. Believe me, you have far more experience listening to classical music than I do, hands down! And rest assured, were I to attempt it, I wouldn’t be able to make much out of the massive score for The Sleeping Beauty with my limited knowledge–though I am tempted to try a bit of it, I’ll confess. The point is, this is what makes David’s liner notes all the more precious. Listening with them in hand, I heard so many more things than I would have on my own. Last, not least, there’s no way that an evening of chamber music of Mozart, Beethoven, and Debussy is boring (unless, of course, it’s not well played). I think one doesn’t at all exclude the other. That’s the great thing: we can have it all!
I’m pretty partial to his Sixth Symphony, none the least of which due to the mystery surrounding it…
Mark S.: And as I don’t know what that mystery is, it’s all the more mysterious to me. (I did do a quick google, but it seemed more speculation than information, so I left off.)
It is a whole bunch of speculation. The short version: he died right after the symphony premiered. Nobody knows why. There’s wild speculations of suicide, a hidden illness, etc. Did he know he was dying when he wrote the Sixth Symphony? Did he write his own requiem the Mozart did? (or tried to, anyway)
Traditionally a symphony goes out with a bang (listen to Tchaikovsky’s first five), but his Sixth Symphony, after a rousing third movement, goes out with a whimper in the fourth. Just nine days after that symphony’s first performance, Tchaikovsky was dead, and some people have taken that last movement as Tchaikovsky’s recognition of his imminent death. And therein lies a mystery (perhaps the one alluded to). You can read a discussion of it starting in the fourth paragraph of this article:
There’s a more-detailed discussion here:
Tchaikovsky had no inkling of his own end when he wrote the symphony in the spring and early summer of 1893; his brother Modest thought the confessional of despair had purged his habitual depression for a while and the composer himself wrote of his happiness and strength.
His untimely end later that year, though, IS as you say unclear and we’ll probably never know the truth. The theories of death by tribunal or by a kind of Russian roulette with a glass of possibly cholera-infected water are not actually that wild; the best account of them is in an excellent biography of Tchaikovsky in his own words by Alexandra Orlova. No-one since, including the over-insistent biographer Poznansky, has been able to refute them definitively.
David, Steve, Mark S.: Well, look what happens when I’m off doing something else! I know next to nothing about Tchaikovsky the man. Steve: interesting links, and thanks. David, the Orlova biography sounds like the place to go to learn more, so many thanks for weighing in with that and on the issue at hand.
When I read your post I’d recently watched the 2-DVD, six-hour presentation about Tchaikovsky’s life and music by Prof. Robert Greenberg in The Great Courses (http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=753), so I was aware of the controversy. Greenberg comes down in favor of the forced suicide.
Steve: Yet another interesting link, thank you so much! I am enticed to read more about Tchaikovsky–my first stop will be the 184 pages of program notes that arrived with my 60CD Brilliant Set. It is a true treasure trove. Now I only need eight more lives!
Thank you. I suspect you’re being tongue in cheek, but I don’t think it’s corny to like Tchaikovsky – or anything, really. I’m lucky in that I did not grow up with classical music and came to it late in life, so there’s a freshness to things for me that others have heard hundreds of times.
Also going to check out Nice’s ‘darkness to light’ selection (think it’s really cool that he’s working to get ‘Atlas’ performed).
Mark K.: When I was younger, I did listen to some classical music, but I never really knew how to go about, so I kept going back to the same pieces over and over. When I started in listening more recently, there was so much I’d never heard, or anyway paid attention to, that I also experienced that “freshness to things for me that others have heard hundreds of times.” I did avoid Tchaikovsky, though–the over-popularization of some pieces did put me off.
I was quite amazed at the “darkness to light” selections–hope you enjoy them, too. And absolutely agreed on Atlas. Knocking on all possible wood as to that!
Thanks for some beautiful music & ballet, Susan!
Bente: I’m pleased to be able to give something in return for all the wonderful photos of Norway you’ve given us!
Well, I sat down with a lentil and vegetable pie (dinner with the computer and Susan tonight) thinking this will be a nice (sic) little riff through Sleeping Beauty. But oh, so much more. The pie’s long gone, the kitchen’s sorted, and I’m still here, still going, back to David, back to Susan, to David, to Susan, just loving the Waking Beauty of this wonderful post.
The Big Set. Why do people post these things? Don’t they know there’s folks all over the world with ears bigger than their pockets. I am the person who was physically removed from the Music Shop in Munich (and had a little domestic with K), like a drunk from a pub, when I only had two bags of CDs and DVDs. Only two bags I say. I know there’s no more space to stack things here, no space at all. Well, there’s the floor I said. The Big Set (I like Big Sets, as the bishop said …) is fantastic, not only value, but such treasures, and together with the DVD, they are on my list to look at in the cold (not as cold as you up there mind you) light of morning. But heaven (really the internet, these days) knows: I’m just a guy who can’t say No.
And David (pardon me Susan), I did enjoy your mentioning Orla with such praise and enthusiasm. She was the soprano in the (last) Britten War Requiem here a few years ago. Can you imagine?
Wanderer: You made my day with this comment! We’re having fun, aren’t we, wandering around the world from post to post? Just so you know, this particular Big Set is on order and should soon be winging its way to me–turned out it was on sale at arkiv through 3/15, so how could I not? Your story about the Munich Music Shop is funny indeed. In New York City, there’s a wonderful second-hand CD store called Academy. It’s good I don’t live nearby, as, when I get down there, I always end up with a stack. It doesn’t appear I have anything like the numbers you do, but, while I try to be careful budget-wise, I do love having the real things (books, too).
(clap) (clap)… though now I wonder if I should apologize for being a Tchaikovsky fan? (I was an odd duck as a child – raised on John Denver, Sound of Music and bluegrass, yet turned to Beatles and Zepp (hippie uncle) AND classical as a teen.) I still enjoy the dark, somber pieces – ergo, thanks to your blog, I bought a Arvo Part CD yesterday as I am a bit obsessed.
I do hope you are using your local library to test out these monster sets first?? I have interlibrary loaned a massive Chopin collection once – in hindsight probably shouldn’t with s/h cost! (P.S. sweet serendipity for a friend invited me to symphony Sat night, if I survive libraryland that day — guess what is playing….Tchaikovsky 4 ~ a)
Angela: Apologize? Au contraire! I’m the one who should, for missing out so long! As for the Big Set, I’ve been eyeing it since David N. first recommended it in 2011, and his recommendation track record has been solid gold for me. But you’re right, as a general rule, it’s wise to test things out before taking the plunge, and the library is a great resource for that (and so many other things). Viva libraries and librarians!
So pleased you’re enjoying Arvo Pärt (I think you know Mark K. is a great fan, too)–and do enjoy Tchaikovksy’s 4th. It’s a beauty. (Listen to me, like I’m an expert now . . .)
I’d forgotten, until Angela mentioned the library, the common routine of my early music-buying days. We went to “the record store”, selected what seemed interesting, and then listened to the records on a turntable with headphones. Generally, if there wasn’t a crush of people and you bought at least something at the end of it all, you could spend an entire afternoon just listening and sampling. Today, we call that YouTube.
In any event, I still remember my shock the day I picked up an album called “The Nutcracker”, put it on the turntable and realized I was listening to music I’d heard on television during a holiday special. I suppose I “knew” that already, but encountering the music in a wholly different context allowed me to experience it differently. I’m no great fan of Tchaikovsky, but it isn’t Christmas without the Nutcracker.
As for the boredom-inducing qualities of those “old chestnuts”, Robert Baldwin mentioned the other day that Pachelbel mostly is “remembered for one short piece, his Canon in D. It has become a staple at weddings, funerals, receptions, Christmas, etc. But it is also the butt of jokes for musicians and the bane of cellists everywhere. (The cello line has only 8 slow notes, repeated over, and over, and over….)” In short, it, too, has sunk beneath the weight of its own popularity.
I laughed and suggested musicians may feel about the Canon in D much like poets do about Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”. Still, it’s my go-to music for spring midnights with open windows, so much so that I have a CD with eight (count them! eight!) versions on it. It’s comfort music, just as surely as tomato soup and grilled cheese, meatloaf and mashed potatoes or scalloped chicken are comfort foods. I don’t need to read the recipe in order to enjoy those foods, and I don’t need a score to be nourished by certain music.
I suppose this is partly a way of backing into Friko’s “I know what I like” comment. But it’s more than that. Our likes and dislikes are determined by far more than the skill and originality of the composer. I love “The Nutcracker”, yet gave up Tchaikovsky long ago. Is he a bad composer? Of course not. Am I an uninformed listener? That’s more likely, but not entirely true. It’s just part of the mystery of it all.
At any rate – wonderful post. It takes me forever to plough through these, because I want to give them their due. I certainly appreciate what it takes for you to produce these for our pleasure!
shoreacres: What you’ve written here deserves a post of its own, starting right up top with memories of those store record-players . . . not to mention your punchline about YouTube! What you write about The Nutcracker is very much my experience of listening to The Sleeping Beauty music on its own. After that, watching the DVD (which is gorgeous, gorgeous . . . did I say that already, gorgeous?) with the music now fully in my ears made for far richer enjoyment of the ballet. (Mom has already weighed in to say that, when she visits in June, the DVD is No. 1 on our viewing list.) In the same way, having David Nice’s program liner notes in hand made my experience of listening to the music even more rich and resonant than it already was. I hoped in this, as in all my posts, to share my own joy in discovery. I know our lives are full to brimming, and am ever grateful to those who have time and are able to come along for the ride. Thank you for coming along on this particular ride with me. Here’s to spring nights with open windows, with whatever music we choose to fling into the breeze!
Here’s an oddment you may find as intriguing as I did. There’s at least one link between Tchaikovsky and Dave Brubeck – the use of 5/4 time. Here’s the article.
shoreacres: Great article. Thanks for noting it. Take Five, a favorite of mine from high school days, was, a big reason I enjoyed discovering that Tchaikovsky had also used 5/4 time. As an aside, I’m suspecting you’re not eager to time travel with Susan Howe, but wonder if you’ve tried out the visual thesaurus. Sort of fun, I thought.