The Galaxy – Cracking nuts at Christmastime

Publicity shot of the original cast of Tchaiko...

Original cast of The Nutcracker (Image via Wikipedia)

Tonight’s show starts with a piece of music that has become something of a holiday tradition.  Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was given a commission for an opera/ballet double bill by Ivan Vsevolozhsky, director of the Imperial Theaters in St. Petersburg, who was hoping that Tchaikovsky would be able to duplicate his previous success with Sleeping Beauty and Queen of Spades.  But Tchaikovsky was slow in progressing on the compositions (the opera ended up being Iolanta), and eventually was interrupted by a prior commitment for a conducting tour in the USA.  Neither piece saw a much of success initially, but Tchaikovsky extracted certain parts of the ballet for a suite, the Nutcracker Suite, that achieved instant and enduring popularity. By the mid-20th century, tonight’s work, The Nutcracker, had matched the success of its corresponding suite, and is now performed regularly around the world, and especially in the US, and ranks as one of the composer’s most popular compositions.

The original layout of the ballet was based on a French adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann‘s Nussknacker und Mausekönig (“The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King”) by Alexandre Dumas.  But the ballet has been frequently altered and rearranged, although most recordings of the ballet use the original arrangement of parts.  Tchaikovsky was actually not as satisfied with his final product (as compared to his feelings towards Sleeping Beauty, for instance), and had in fact been reluctant to write the ballet.  A letter written while he was composing the ballet suggests that he was warming up to the task, however.  The lack of initial success for the piece probably impacted his feelings towards his music, however, with some historians suggesting that he “detested” the score.

The Mystical Nativity (1501) by Sandro Botticelli

After The Nutcracker, we heard a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach.  Schwingt freudig euch empor (Soar joyfully upwards), BWV 36, was written in 1731 in Leipzig for the First Sunday of Advent, and performed on 2 Dec of that year.  Bach used texts by his frequent librettist Christian Friedrich Henrici for movements 1, 3, 5 and 7, Phillip Nicolai for movement 4, and Martin Luther for movements 2, 6 and 8 (taken from the chorale Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now Come, Savior of the Peoples), a piece that Bach used on several different occasions.  Tonight we hear a year 2000 recording by the Aradia Ensemble, under the direction of Kevin Mallon, a group of early music specialists that has done some excellent work with a number of composers.  The vocalists are Teri Dunn, Matthew White, John Tessier, Steven Pitkanen, and Thomas Goerz.

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