Random thoughts about The Nutcracker
Considering its virtual omnipresence for about a month out of the year, from theaters to shopping malls to car commercials, we should probably be thankful that Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker is a true
masterpiece that brims not only with irresistible tunes and iridescent orchestration but also with great musical invention. A case in point is one of its greatest hits, the ballerina variation in Act II (otherwise
known as the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy).
In this passage, which anticipates Stravinsky's rhythmic sophistication (but also shows Schumann's influence), the rhythm of the famous melody sounds surprisingly irregular as it flirts with the perfectly
straightforward um-pah accompaniment below.
In other words, when you try to think of the tune without looking at the music, it seems to skip or add a beat, its cadences clear but downbeats somewhat deceptive.
Is it -
or perhaps -
In fact, the melody - just like the accompaniment heard in the introduction - fits in a simple four-bar phrase but it is any attempt to divide it into smaller cells within those four bars that would reveal its inner
asymmetry, even in the actual notation:
The eighth-note rest with which the theme begins seems to play an important role in the theme. A note on that downbeat rest would have turned the inner division of the tune all-too-clearly conventional
and robbed the whole passage of the alluring ambiguity of its rhythm that contributes to the passage's overall sense of mystery no less than the otherworldly timbre of the celeste and the pianissimo
dynamic and which makes the tune seem suspended in the air above the more grounded um-pah pattern, as if letting the music literally create the illusion of the gently hovering fairy.
Tchaikovsky achieves this illusion of irregularity in a subtle but persistent way in a movement that is, in fact, made up of nothing but 'squarely' regular, four-bar phrases.
Once we reach the presto section that ends the variation, these same four-bar phrases begin to sound more like four beats of a 4/4 bar because of the much faster tempo. Following this grouping would
reveal the very last bar to be the fourth in its phrase. Therefore, the final chord, which ostensibly is the 'strong' downbeat within its own bar sounds also like a fourth (i.e. 'weak') beat in the last four-bar
phrase. This rhythmic double-entendre gives the otherwise decisive ending a certain lift. It also echoes the rhythmic subtlety of the beginning and is integral to the general character of the piece that
Tchaikovsky devised so ingeniously.
Besides the rhythmic wit of the Sugar Plum Fairy, it's tempting to try and find the possible reincarnation of certain moments from The Nutcracker in bits of Stravinsky's ballets even if those are, musically
speaking, still in the distant future. Who knows, maybe the soldier from Act I -
- is a precursor of King Katschei of The Firebird:
And perhaps the trumpet flourishes of the Chocolates' Spanish Dance -
find their echo in the Moor's room, in recurring bursts of laughter that the trumpet sounds while the Ballerina is waltzing, just before Petrushka enters the scene in a rage:
And the accordion-like alternation of chords at the end of Tchaikovsky's Christmas party -
- may bring to mind Stravinsky's Shrovetide fair:
The business of defining the qualities of different keys in music can quickly start to feel like new-age Kabalah. Obviously, C minor doesn't always symbolize pathos, E-flat isn't always heroic, and G major isn't always a key for rustic merriment (although peasants do like to frolic in G in Mozart's operas). But while this things need to be taken with a grain of salt, it is an intriguing exercise to trace certain sonorities and characteristics that different composers may associate with certain keys.
E major, for instance, is a bit of a special case. While it's not especially 'odd' (it only has four sharps...) there are not so many important large-scale works written in E major, Bruckner's 7th (and Scriabin's 1st!) being a glorious exception. Perhaps the lack of E major works may have to do with the fact that it doesn't have the ring and resonance on string instruments like D, or A do. Those keys sound very good on strings because they are 'open' strings on all string instruments (hence the abundance of violin concertos in D). E is an open string on the violin but one that is often avoided because it tends to stick out in a chord. But still, E major chords can gain a lot of resonance from the low open E string in the bass.
E major sometimes makes special cameo appearances in certain pieces where it seemingly doens't belong: Brahms' 1st Symphony (which is in C minor but has a slow movement in E); Haydn's famous last Piano Sonata - again, the slow movement is in E, which in that case is just about the farthest he could possibly go from the home key of E-flat (it can seem abnormal but the notes that are closest to each other on the scale, like B and B-flat, are actually farthest apart for harmonic purposes). And of course, two great 'unfinished' symphonies, Schubert's 8th (in B Minor) and Bruckner's 9th (in D Minor) end, coincidentally or not, with E major.
In Mozart, who often coupled certain keys with certain characteristics, E major makes rare but significant appearances in very late pieces, like the rather introverted E major Piano Trio K542 from 1788. Other examples are found in the late operas, such as Sarastro's
In diesen heil'gen Hallen from The Magic Flute and two strikingly colored numbers in Così Fan Tutte, the trio Soave sia il vento
from act I -
And Fiordiligi's aria Per pietà, ben mio
from Act II -
The latter, with its obligato horns and winds must have inspired Leonora's Komm, Hoffnung
in Beethoven's Fidelio, also in E major, prominently featuring 3 horns:
These and other instances of the use of E major often share rich, mellifluous sonorities with a special role for the horns, as can be seen clearly in the Mozart and Beethoven arias, but also in the horn solos in the slow movements of Brahms' 1st and 4th Symphonies, Schubert's Unfinished or in the song Der Lindenbaum
from Winterreise, where echoes of distant horn calls are implied in the piano in bars 7-8 and 12).
Going back to opera brings to mind one of the most luxurious, extravagant and unabashed examples for a composer's use of any key to set an atmosphere: Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss begins the first act with abundant waves of E major, opening with a horn signal, twisting the harmony in every direction during the introduction
...and finally lets it cast its warm glow with another horn motif, when the curtain is about to come up:
From then on, the music leisurely lingers on E in basses for nearly 30 bars and it seems that Strauss doesn't simply use E major as a tonal center but indulges in it, as if luxuriating in the gauzy textures of fine linen, ingeniously turning the 'key of richness' almost into a leitmotif for the opulence of Imperial Vienna:
Of course, this harmonic decadence cannot go on forever just like a affair between a seventeen-year-old kid and a the wife of a Feldmarschal many years his senior will not survive the end of the opera. And so, while the music does go back to E major with an extensive passage in the final scene of Act I, Strauss then veers off and closes the act with echoes of this 'E major music', but in an ethereal E-flat:
My other favorite example of the 'E Major character' is the last movement of Mahler's 4th Symphony
- a consciously naive setting (Mahler even indicates ohne Parodie!
, including the exclamation point) of a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, describing daily life in heaven as imagined by a child. Like the first act in Strauss' opera it, too, switches quite abruptly to another key at the end (from G to E) without ever going back (I guess no one has come back from heaven yet).
At that point, Mahler also inundates the score with E Major sonorities - there are hardly any notes that do NOT belong to the E Major scale in the entire coda (in this case, roughly the last three or four minutes of the piece). Ironically, mellifluous E major fills both Mahler's pure depiction of heavenly riches and the decadent, cross-dressing, let-them-eat-cake salon of Strauss' Marschallin.
Every now and then I feel the urge to go back to one of the Mozart operas for a healthy dose of musical vitamins. And every now and then another detail that I must have missed before presents itself and makes me realize that this music is even greater than I ever imagined. Moments like that are often accompanied by an odd sensation of euphoria.
And so the other day, various passages in Don Giovanni suddenly appeared to be connected in unexpected ways. They had an unusual thing in common: they were all in unison, often with the full strings playing the same notes. They also shared something else: they appeared mostly in the part of Leporello, the Don's servant. Could there be a 'Leporello-music'?
Well, why not? Other personages seem to have their own musical characteristics. For example, D Minor becomes Donna Anna; Zerlina and Masetto are introduced to us in G Major, which seems to be a favorite key for choruses of peasants or servants (e.g. The Marriage of Figaro); not to mention Donna Elvira's vocal line which is all over the place, with big leaps and even an aria in the style of Handel (Ah fuggi il traditor
The moment he comes on stage, Leporello has nothing but unison as his background:
(All example are from an early Breitkopf edition, and the wind-parts appear between the strings).
A few moments later Don Giovanni and Donna Anna burst onto the scene and Leporello wishes he could make himself disappear altogether - again, in unison with the strings (and bassoon).
Generally, these unharmonized sonorities seem to be appear when Leporello is caught in awkward situations (which happen all the time as part of his job) and generally in moments of chagrin or humiliation, such as in the great sextet of Act II:
(Now would be a good time to flee!)
(Countless troubled thoughts are stirring my mind!...)
Later in the scene, in an aria of his own, he is desperately looking for escape and begs for mercy while trying to explain that he is not to blame for Don Giovanni's acts. The orchestra echoes his line with the same sonorities of string doubling in octaves:
At the end of the aria the unison is complete:
Finally, there is the duet at the graveyard (O statua gentilissima
), in which Leporello's fear and humiliation at having to invite a statue over for dinner are expressed in chilling, unharmonized sevenths:
The device is also employed in the last moments of the opera, as Leporello trembles with fear at the presence of the Commendatore's walking statue:
('Oh, Master! We are all doomed!')
And even when he tries to make a joke in the face of death:
(alas, the Don is too busy to go hell today...)
All of these examples above are Leporello's musical stamp, almost a leitmotif for a central trait of his character. For Mozart, the music is never separate from the drama and therefore the frequent unison writing in Leporello's part is not only a device of dramatic characterization but also of acoustic distinction from the part of Don Giovanni, which is in a similar range.
In fact, what I find irresistably cool is the fact that the Don is actually is given brief unison accompaniment when he lowers himself to perform his servant's task of opening the door when latter is too scared to:
(Enough with this nonsense, I'll open it myself!)
... and moreover, in the aria where he is literally dressed as Leporello himself(!):