"Nutcracker" season is upon us again: At least seven productions are scheduled in Orange County alone, beginning with the San Francisco Ballet production that opens Friday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
So another opportunity presents itself to appreciate the wondrous score Tchaikovsky composed, astonishingly, at a time when, in his words, "a consuming depression constantly gnaws at my heart, and I have not for a long time felt as unhappy as now."
Although there are dark and threatening moments in the score, little can be found in it that seems to reflect this extreme mood. So much for theories of art being the personal expression of the composer.
Yet although simpler than the music for "Swan Lake" or "The Sleeping Beauty," Tchaikovsky's other great ballets, the music for "Nutcracker" doesn't lack interest, charm or emotional effect. And its influence can be felt in music of the major composer of ballets in the 20th Century--Igor Stravinsky.
Stravinsky adored Tchaikovsky's music in general and incorporated his own reworkings of the earlier composer's music into his 1928 ballet, "Le Baiser de la Fee," originally choreographed by Nijinska and later, in differing versions, by Ashton, Balanchine and John Neumeier.
But far earlier, Stravinsky apparently had found more specific inspiration in Tchaikovsky's music for the second pair of full-sized dolls the counselor Drosselmeyer brings to the "Nutcracker" Christmas party. This is echoed in his Dance of Kastchei from the 1910 ballet "Firebird."
To suit the design of the original scenario of the ballet, Tchaikovsky wrote a dance for a he-devil and a she-devil. But for some reason, the scenario was changed for the 1892 St. Petersburg premiere, and a pair of Columbine dolls danced to the music instead. Even so, the "infernal" aspects of the music remained and Stravinsky's ear must have picked up on them when he needed that kind of sound.
In fact, in the forlorn wind sonorities Tchaikovsky occasionally uses in "Nutcracker," Stravinsky may have also found inspiration for similar moments in the music he wrote for Nijinsky's seminal 1913 ballet, "Le Sacre du Printemps."
But beyond specifics, what must have captured Stravinsky's attention is that few composers who wrote music for 19th-Century ballets wrote music that was as interesting for the mime or narrative passages necessary in story ballets as for the big formal dances that balletomanes love.
Or to manage as adroitly the shifts between the two.
Actually, Tchaikovsky created distinct kinds of sound in "Nutcracker" appropriate to each of the differing dramatic realms in the story--the children's world, the adult's formal society, the glints of impending mystery and threat, as well as the outsized, full-throated emotional passages such as the transformation of the Christmas tree or vista opening to the Candy Land of Act II.
Tchaikovsky managed these distinctions by using specific clusters of instruments and also through particular key progressions. Both these techniques are described brilliantly by Roland John Wiley in his indispensable book, "Tchaikovsky's Ballets" (published by Oxford University Press).
But if the "Nutcracker" composer in a way points forward to Stravinsky, he also looks backward to his beloved Mozart.
One cannot help noticing those moments of darkness passing over the light, especially at times we least expect them in the Second Act (the so-called "Land of the Sweets"): the middle sections of the Dance of the Mirlitons, the Waltz of the Flowers and the surprisingly somber Grand pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and Her Cavalier.
On the one hand, the shifts to minor tonalities in such cases can be considered simple efforts to extend the length of the pieces by providing interesting musical contrasts. On the other, they also can be seen as the composer's indications that the real world increasingly and imminently will break into Clara's beautiful dream and bring her back to a more complex reality.
In either case, probably only one other composer ever managed such seamless shifts from light to dark and back again as this, and that was Mozart. Like Mozart, Tchaikovsky appeared to comprehend the instantaneous complexity of emotional states. At any rate, we know that the later composer paid direct homage to the earlier one by reworking his music in the Suite No. 4 ("Mozartiana"). To help bring the image full circle, Balanchine, who choreographed Stravinsky's reworking of Tchaikovsky in "Baiser de la Fee," also choreographed Tchaikovsky's reworking of Mozart in his 1980 ballet "Mozartiana."