May 072016
 

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Today is the birthday (1840) of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский), or 25 April in Old Style, a well-known Russian composer of the late-Romantic period, some of whose works are among the most popular music in the classical repertoire. He was the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally, bolstered by his appearances as a guest conductor in Europe and the United States. Tchaikovsky was honored in 1884, by Emperor Alexander III, and awarded a lifetime pension.

Peter Tschaikovsky As A Student At Conse

Although musically precocious, Tchaikovsky was educated for a career as a civil servant. There was scant opportunity for a musical career in Russia at that time and no system of public music education. When an opportunity for such an education arose, he entered the nascent Saint Petersburg Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1865. The formal Western-oriented teaching he received there set him apart from composers of the contemporary nationalist movement embodied by the Russian composers of The Mighty Five (César Cui, Aleksandr Borodin, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov), with whom his professional relationship was mixed. Tchaikovsky’s training set him on a path to reconcile what he had learned about his native Russian musical practices, to which he had been exposed from childhood, with the norms of Western European styles. From this reconciliation, he forged a personal but unmistakably Russian style. The principles that governed melody, harmony and other fundamentals of Russian music ran completely counter to those that governed Western European music, and this divergence caused personal antipathies with local composers, critics, and audiences that dented Tchaikovsky’s self-confidence. Russian culture exhibited a split personality, with its native and adopted elements having drifted apart increasingly since the time of Peter the Great. This resulted in uncertainty among the intelligentsia about the country’s national identity—an ambiguity mirrored in Tchaikovsky’s career.

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Despite his many popular successes, Tchaikovsky’s life was punctuated by personal crises and depression. Contributory factors included his early separation from his mother when he went to boarding school which was followed by his mother’s early death; the death of his close friend and colleague Nikolai Rubinstein; and the collapse of the one enduring relationship of his adult life, which was his 13-year association with the rich widow Nadezhda von Meck. His homosexuality, which he kept private, has traditionally also been considered a major factor, although critics vary concerning its importance. Tchaikovsky’s sudden death at the age of 53 is generally ascribed to cholera; there is an ongoing debate as to whether cholera was indeed the cause of death, or if it was accidental or self-inflicted.

While his music has remained popular among audiences, critical opinions were initially mixed. Some Russians did not feel it was sufficiently representative of native musical values and expressed suspicion that Europeans accepted the music for its Western elements. In an apparent reinforcement of the latter claim, some Europeans lauded Tchaikovsky for offering music that transcended stereotypes of Russian classical music. Others dismissed Tchaikovsky’s music as “lacking in elevated thought,” according to longtime New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg, and derided its formal workings as deficient because they did not stringently follow Western principles. So there’s the rub – in trying to blend Western and Russian styles he proved to be not Russian enough for Russians, nor Western enough for Westerners.  I’m sorry, but I am not responsible for all the morons in the world.

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I’ve talked about individual works of his before in some detail, such as the Nutcracker https://www.bookofdaystales.com/the-nutcracker/ and the 1812 Overture https://www.bookofdaystales.com/1812-overture/ and I don’t need to repeat myself. He was clearly a master of melody and of orchestral color and diversity. Most importantly we should not let the popularity of some of his pieces diminish his stature as a composer (which tends to be the usual bad habit of snobbish critics). I’ll take a rather more personal tack, therefore.

When I was a teenager in secondary school I admired some of Tchaikovsky’s work especially Capriccio Italien, Op. 45, which was inspired by a trip to Rome he took in 1880. Modern conductor JoAnn Falletta says:

Capriccio Italien has great power, even though it’s practically a pops piece, Tchaikovsky knows what the instruments can do in a virtuoso way. He brings them to their limit in the most thrilling fashion. He has a gift for mixing families of instruments just right – like cantabile strings along with mighty brass. I hear the ballet element in everything Tchaikovsky writes, in his sense of rhythm. You can practically dance to both these scores!

There you have a perfect summation of the reception of Tchaikovsky in his day and now – too popular, but pretty good. What exactly is wrong with being popular or appealing to popular tastes? It amounts to something like “I’m smart and people in general are dumb; so if they like it, I won’t.” I’d call that attitude pretty stupid in its own right.

Here’s my appraisal.

Nowadays some of Tchaikovsky’s work does suffer from being played a lot because of its popularity – Nutcracker being a shining example. But it is possible to see beyond that fact. It is also possible to look at Tchaikovsky’s complete oeuvre and not just pick on select pieces. The first thing you notice is the diversity – melody, structure, orchestration, harmony, etc. Sometimes he used Western-style melodies, sometimes original melodies written in the style of Russian folk song; sometimes he used actual folk songs. Here’s where things get a little tough. Unlike Western themes, the melodies that Russian composers wrote tended to be self-contained so there’s a degree of stasis and repetition in them rather than one of progress and ongoing development. On a technical level, this makes modulating to a new key to introduce a contrasting second theme exceedingly difficult. The second way melody worked against Tchaikovsky was a challenge that he shared with the majority of Romantic-age composers. They did not write in the regular, symmetrical melodic shapes that worked well with sonata form, such as those favored by Classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven, but were complete and independent in themselves. This completeness hindered their use as structural elements in combination with one another. Many modern critics, therefore, claim that Russian composers did not do well with the symphony form. Arrant nonsense.

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Let’s take his 6th symphony and start with common misperceptions. The Russian title of the symphony, Патетическая (Pateticheskaya), means “passionate” or “emotional.” The common translation into the French “Pathetique” conveys the wrong impression and leads to unwarranted interpretations – somehow the piece is filled with “pathos” imbued in it because of the composer’s imminent death which he somehow foresaw. Yes, Tchaikovsky conducted the first performance in Saint Petersburg on 28 October 1893 nine days before his death. Does that warrant calling it a martyr’s lament or a testament to homosexual guilt? I hardly think so. Tchaikovsky himself wrote:

I am now wholly occupied with the new work … and it is hard for me to tear myself away from it. I believe it comes into being as the best of my works. I must finish it as soon as possible, for I have to wind up a lot of affairs and I must soon go to London. I told you that I had completed a Symphony which suddenly displeased me, and I tore it up. Now I have composed a new symphony which I certainly shall not tear up. [emphasis in the original]

It is recorded that for the first performance in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky arrived in excellent spirits, despite the fact that he began to feel apprehension over his symphony, when, at rehearsals, the orchestra players did not exhibit any great admiration for the new work. Nevertheless, the premiere was met with great appreciation. Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest wrote, “There was applause and the composer was recalled, but with more enthusiasm than on previous occasions.” It was only after his death that the critics started referring to the symphony as a “suicide note” and the like.

I could go on.  As it happens, I don’t like much of Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre. The Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, is one of his enduringly popular works which I can’t listen to. The introductory orchestral theme is fine, but then it is overlaid by endless bang-bang-bang on the piano, interrupted eventually by repeated arpeggios. Yawn. Here’s the thing. That’s my personal taste – de gustibus non est disputandum. I’m not going to foist it upon you as THE TRUTH. I just don’t like it: end of story. If you like it – fine.

I’ve celebrated Tchaikovsky with recipes several times already and you can consult my previous posts if you like. Here I’d like to point to A Gift to Young Housewives (Пода́рок молоды́м хозя́йкам) written and compiled by Elena Ivanovna Molokhovets. It was the most successful book of its kind in 19th and early 20th-century Russia. Molokhovets revised the book continually between 1861 and 1917, a period falling between the emancipation of the serfs and the Communist Revolution, and square within Tchaikovsky’s lifetime.  You’ll find a partial pdf (in Russian) here: http://nuclphys.sinp.msu.ru/recipes/molohovec/

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Beef Stroganoff is a recipe that is now common in the West and has many variations that I have alluded to in the past. It was originally a 19th century Russian creation which Molokhovets highlighted in her inimitable style. Her recipe is rather different from modern versions in that you make the sauce and the beef separately and then combine them just before serving. It goes something like this:

About 2 hours before dinner cut 1 kilo of tender beef into small cubes and sprinkle them with salt and allspice.  Just before dinner, mix 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of flour and heat gently (i.e. make a roux) and add 2 cups of beef broth, 1 teaspoon of Sareptskaja mustard**, and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and strain.

Sauté the beef in butter. Add 2 tablespoons of fresh sour cream to the sauce, then add the beef and heat through.  

** This is homemade mustard made by combining ground mustard seeds with honey.

This can be served as it is, or, more commonly these days, over flat noodles along with green beans and pickles. Your choice.

Dec 182015
 

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The Nutcracker was given its première at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on this date in 1892. It was a two-act ballet, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (op. 71). The libretto is adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. It was featured on a double-bill with Tchaikovsky’s opera, Iolanta. Although the original production was not a success, the 20-minute suite that Tchaikovsky extracted from the ballet was. The complete Nutcracker has enjoyed enormous popularity since the late 1960s and is now performed by countless ballet companies, primarily during the Christmas season, especially in North America. Major North American ballet companies generate around 40 percent of their annual ticket revenues from performances of The Nutcracker.

It took me a long time to find a way to write about The Nutcracker sensibly. Its annual presentation by the Conservatory where I taught for 15 years, killed it stone dead for me. Familiarity breeds contempt in this case. It was a money spinner, plain and simple, with recorded music and mostly student performers (of all ages). I was once asked to perform, but around the time I was asked, my phone and email mysteriously stopped working. Not a brilliant ruse, but it worked. The combination of being on the fringes of the production for years, Disney’s mangling of it in Fantasia, endless television ads at Christmas featuring snippets of the music, and so forth makes me want to throw things. So . . . I sat down calmly yesterday and watched this version of the ballet (from the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, December 2012) trying to bring fresh eyes and ears to it:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtLoaMfinbU

I think I succeeded to a degree and can write about it without doing harm to myself and others. I still don’t like the ballet much – disjointed and overly sentimental. But I understand why I liked the music as a youngster. The music of the second act is certainly evocative in places, with interesting (for the time), harmonies and tone colors. My old affection for the Arabian Dance returned, but the rest is still too sugary and overly familiar.

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After the success of The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the director of the Imperial Theatres, commissioned Tchaikovsky to compose a double-bill program featuring both an opera and a ballet. The opera would be Iolanta. For the ballet, Tchaikovsky again joined forces with Marius Petipa, with whom he had collaborated on The Sleeping Beauty. The material Petipa chose was an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by Alexandre Dumas père called The Tale of the Nutcracker. The plot of Hoffmann’s story (and Dumas’ adaptation) was greatly simplified for the two-act ballet. Hoffmann’s tale contains a long flashback story within its main plot entitled The Tale of the Hard Nut, which explains how the Prince was turned into a nutcracker. This had to be excised for the ballet.

Petipa gave Tchaikovsky extremely detailed instructions for the composition of each number, down to the tempo and number of bars. The completion of the work was interrupted for a short time when Tchaikovsky visited the United States for twenty-five days to conduct concerts for the opening of Carnegie Hall and he composed parts of The Nutcracker in Rouen.

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Although the libretto was by Marius Petipa, who exactly choreographed the first production has been debated. Petipa began work on the choreography in August 1892; however, illness removed him from its completion and his assistant of seven years, Lev Ivanov, was brought in. Although Ivanov is often credited as the choreographer, some contemporary accounts credit Petipa. The performance was conducted by Riccardo Drigo, with Antonietta Dell’Era as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Pavel Gerdt as Prince Coqueluche, Stanislava Belinskaya as Clara, Sergei Legat as the Nutcracker-Prince, and Timofey Stukolkin as Drosselmeyer. The children’s roles, unlike many later productions, were performed by real children rather than adults (with Belinskaya as Clara, and Vassily Stukolkin as Fritz), students of the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg.

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The first performance of The Nutcracker was not deemed a success. The reaction to the dancers themselves was mixed. While some critics praised Dell’Era on her pointework as the Sugar Plum Fairy (she allegedly received five curtain-calls), one critic called her “corpulent” and “podgy.” Olga Preobrajenskaya as the Columbine doll was panned by one critic as “completely insipid” and praised as “charming” by another. Alexandre Benois described the choreography of the battle scene as confusing: “One can not understand anything. Disorderly pushing about from corner to corner and running backwards and forwards – quite amateurish.”

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The libretto was criticized for being “lopsided” and for not being faithful to the Hoffmann tale. Much of the criticism focused on the featuring of children so prominently in the ballet, and many bemoaned the fact that the ballerina did not dance until the Grand Pas de Deux near the end of the second act (which did not occur until nearly midnight during the program). Some found the transition between the mundane world of the first scene and the fantasy world of the second act too abrupt. Reception was better for Tchaikovsky’s score. Some critics called it “astonishingly rich in detailed inspiration” and “from beginning to end, beautiful, melodious, original, and characteristic.” But even this was not unanimous as some critics found the party scene “ponderous” and the Grand Pas de Deux “insipid.” My own response is much the same as these early critics, especially since I’ve suffered through too many performances using children dancers (to advertize my Conservatory’s money-making children’s dance school, and guarantee audiences of doting parents).

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In 1919, choreographer Alexander Gorsky staged a production which eliminated the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier and gave their dances to Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, who were played by adults instead of children. His was the first production to do so. An abridged version of the ballet was first performed outside Russia in Budapest (Royal Opera House) in 1927, with choreography by Ede Brada. In 1934, choreographer Vasili Vainonen staged a version of the work that addressed many of the criticisms of the original 1892 production by casting adult dancers in the roles of Clara and the Prince, as Gorsky had. The Vainonen version influenced several later productions.

Here is a synopsis based on the original 1892 libretto by Marius Petipa. The story varies from production to production, though most follow the basic outline. The names of the characters also vary. In the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story, the young heroine is called Marie Stahlbaum and Clara (Klärchen) is her doll’s name. In the adaptation by Dumas on which Petipa based his libretto, her name is Marie Silberhaus. In still other productions, such as Baryshnikov’s, Clara is Clara Stahlbaum rather than Clara Silberhaus.

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Act I

Scene 1: The Stahlbaum Home

It is Christmas Eve. Family and friends have gathered in the parlor to decorate the beautiful Christmas tree in preparation for the party. Once the tree is finished, the children are sent for. They stand in awe of the tree sparkling with candles and decorations.

The party begins. A march is played. Presents are given out to the children. Suddenly, as the owl-topped grandmother clock strikes eight, a mysterious figure enters the room. It is Drosselmeyer, a local councilman, magician, and Clara’s godfather. He is also a talented toymaker who has brought with him gifts for the children, including four lifelike dolls who dance to the delight of all. He then has them put away for safekeeping.

Clara and Fritz are sad to see the dolls being taken away, but Drosselmeyer has yet another toy for them: a wooden nutcracker carved in the shape of a little man, used for cracking nuts. The other children ignore it, but Clara immediately takes a liking to it. Fritz, however, purposely breaks it. Clara is heartbroken.

During the night, after everyone else has gone to bed, Clara returns to the parlor to check on her beloved nutcracker. As she reaches the little bed, the clock strikes midnight and she looks up to see Drosselmeyer perched atop it. Suddenly, mice begin to fill the room and the Christmas tree begins to grow to dizzying heights. The nutcracker also grows to life size. Clara finds herself in the midst of a battle between an army of gingerbread soldiers and the mice, led by their Tsar. They begin to eat the soldiers.

The nutcracker appears to lead the soldiers, who are joined by tin ones and dolls who serve as doctors to carry away the wounded. As the Mouse Tsar advances on the still-wounded nutcracker, Clara throws her slipper at him, distracting him long enough for the nutcracker to stab him.

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Scene 2: A Pine Forest

The mice retreat and the nutcracker is transformed into a handsome Prince. He leads Clara through the moonlit night to a pine forest in which the snowflakes dance around them, beckoning them on to his kingdom as the first act ends.

Act II

Scene 1: The Land of Sweets

Clara and the Prince travel to the beautiful Land of Sweets, ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy in his place until his return. He recounts for her how he had been saved from the Mouse King by Clara and had been transformed back into his own self.

In honor of the young heroine, a celebration of sweets from around the world is produced: chocolate from Spain, coffee from Arabia, tea from China, and candy canes from Russia all dance for their amusement; Danish shepherdesses perform on their flutes; Mother Ginger has her children, the Polichinelles, emerge from under her enormous hoop skirt to dance; a string of beautiful flowers perform a waltz. To conclude the night, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier perform a dance.

A final waltz is performed by all the sweets, after which the Sugar Plum Fairy ushers Clara and the Prince down from their throne. He bows to her, she kisses Clara goodbye, and leads them to a reindeer drawn sleigh. It takes off as they wave goodbye to all the subjects who wave back.

I gave a recipe for sugar plums in my post on Fantasia (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/fantasia/ ), but in doing a bit more digging, I find that there is more to their history than I originally thought. The recipe I gave there for a sweet, spicy mix of ground fruits and nuts is one of many possibilities (sometimes called Byzantine sugar plums), and it’s quite likely that in 19th century Russia sugar plums were hard sweets. In England and elsewhere in Europe they could also be sugared almonds, known sometimes as Jordan almonds.

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Here is an excellent site that unpacks the whole story:

http://www.historicfood.com/Comfits.htm

Here’s a good video if you want to make them at home.