Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Pathetique Symphony could hardly be more different; yet you can’t understand one without the other, argues conductor David Bernard
As the holidays approach, like so many of us, I find myself drawn inexorably and happily into the world of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. But context can be everything; a little while ago I found myself simultaneously immersed in both The Nutcracker and Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, the Pathétique – the former I was to conduct with the Eglevsky Ballet on Long Island, the latter I was scheduled to perform and record with the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in Manhattan. And here’s the thing - while on the surface one couldn’t find two works that seem more different from each other, diving into both at once, I was stunned at what I found, my perspective changed forever. Because although the Pathétique is portrayed by concert promoters as a sombre and anguished ‘musical suicide note’, and The Nutcracker is a delightful sweet to be savoured and enjoyed (which is why it is rightly a holiday favourite), when you dig into both you suddenly understand the truth – that these two late masterpieces are symbiotically linked, and it is in fact impossible to fully comprehend one without understanding the other.
Both works were written and premiered in the last year of Tchaikovsky’s life – admittedly, that by itself might not make much of a case for enjoining two markedly different works in all but the most superficial way. But this is Tchaikovsky, and like the genius composer he was, in his final year, musical ambitions undimmed, he was at last able to break through the boundaries of convention that had weighed upon him throughout his life. Both The Nutcracker and the Pathétique were products of this same intense period, and the results are startling. Despite their many differences in character, both works show him bursting through convention, his innovations free-flowing, and they represent the truly free expression Tchaikovsky sought and finally attained at the very end of his life.
One of the most startling innovations, shared by each, has to do with the composer’s wish to defy ‘phrase gravity’ - in other words, he often seems intent upon building an intense dramatic progression over extended periods of time, battling the natural limitations of phrase lengths. In these two works, he actually, incredibly, achieved this.
Towards the end of Act 1 of The Nutcracker, for instance, the score depicts with wonderful clarity the magically induced growth of a Christmas Tree to gargantuan size. It is one thing to simply portray a tree growing through music, but to vividly project the growth of this tree at a scale worthy of Drosselmeyer’s magic requires a bigger, and therefore longer ascent – in this case a full three minutes! Grabbing the listener’s attention in a single gesture for this amount of time is no easy task.
Ingeniously, Tchaikovsky combines slowly rising legato lines in the upper voice with descending lines in the lower voice, a technique that allows the upper voice to sound as though it is climbing faster than it actually is. I can’t help thinking of Max Escher’s iconic lithograph, Ascending And Descending, where the physical limits of height no longer limit continual ascent on Escher’s famous staircase. And indeed, Tchaikovsky brings us to the climax of the first phrase with a cadence that feels as though we have arrived at a landing while climbing a flight of stairs – followed by the beginning of a new phrase that continues the climb. After three extended phrases and three full minutes of musical ascent, the music alone has us visualizing the tree reaching its full size through a technically incredible yet moving process.
Similarly, in the Pathétique, using an extended passage of about the same length at around 2’30” in the heart of the finale, Tchaikovsky takes us on an emotional journey through contemplation, regret, elation, pain and ecstasy. Extending this music, Tchaikovsky gives himself room to convey both the frequent turns of emotion and the vastness of their peaks and troughs, and through this sense of prolonging, we can feel them along with Tchaikovsky. Once again, he uses his new-found powers to defy ‘phrase gravity’, once again we climb the never-ending staircase.
There are other shared technical breakthroughs. In Act One of The Nutcracker, at the moment when the snow starts to fall, a dance begins. We sense a waltz of some kind, but the rhythm is driving and hypnotic in a way that no other waltz has ever been able to accomplish. We are propelled forward beat by beat, measure by measure, as the music seems to compel its listeners to an unceasing dance just as Drosselmeyer has used his magic to make his dolls dance at the party scene earlier in the ballet. Tchaikovsky’s magic here is the rhythmic tension created through not only overlaying two conflicting meters on one another, called a hemiola, but offsetting that hemiola by one quarter, in essence amplifying the rhythmic tension by layering syncopation on top of the hemiola. You don’t have to know your music theory to get the point - that you’re listening to an effect of absolute genius.
You have to wonder how Tchaikovsky could top this – but he does just that in the second movement of the Pathétique. As with The Nutcracker’s 'Waltz of the Snowflakes', the opening of the second movement of the Pathétique sounds unmistakably as a waltz. But this waltz doesn’t have the typical three beats to the bar — it has five! One wouldn’t think a 5/4 meter could be mistaken for a waltz, but Tchaikovsky figured out a way to apply the additional two quarters so they add lightness to each measure. Where The Nutcracker’s 'Waltz of the Snowflakes' was hypnotic and driving, the second movement 'waltz' of the Pathétique has us gliding from measure to measure, floating with a buoyancy that transcends traditional waltzes. Tchaikovsky has shown us all how to make a waltz so much more than, well, a waltz.
'The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy' is perhaps The Nutcracker’s single most popular passage, due in no small measure to its brilliant use of the celesta. Tchaikovsky, struggling to bring choreographer Marius Petipa’s Sugar Plum to life, discovered the celesta at a shop in Paris about a year before the ballet’s premiere. He realized that the instrument’s uncommonly 'celestial sound' was the solution he was looking for, and asked his publisher Pyotr Jurgenson to acquire one secretly, away from the prying eyes of Rimsky-Korsakov or Glazunov, so that it could be unveiled in The Nutcracker as an exciting innovation without fear of a rival beating him to it.
And so Tchaikovsky has his new instrument, and uses it to craft an ethereal and transparent sound world so meticulously – combining the high pitched 'otherworldly' celesta, a lyrical bass clarinet and string pizzicato – that not only did he match Petipa’s Nutcracker scenario brilliantly, he also established the music by which the celesta itself has been known for over a century.
The Pathétique similarly broadened the palette with a ‘new’ instrument. While the Sugar Plum Fairy’s celesta was the dazzling star of the show, the tam-tam in the finale of the Pathétique is more a soothsayer - quietly mystical, but unnerving in its insistent sense of premonition. Occurring during a silence just before the concluding brass chorale, the single quiet stroke of the tam-tam does not need to blow anyone’s ears off to shock us. Unexpected, somehow a sound of eternity itself, it shakes us to our core. With both of these instruments, the celesta and the tam-tam, Tchaikovsky perfected his ability to hue his sound world to the music’s demands and in so doing, rivets his listeners and draws them ever closer.
These two works bookend Tchaikovsky’s final year – he died only nine days after the premiere of the Pathétique, and one year after that of The Nutcracker. Together, they herald – and unfortunately close – the time in his life when, in the full height of his powers, what had previously been accepted as natural boundaries clattered to the ground before his genius. Each work on its own is a masterpiece, but set alongside one another, one can truly get a sense of where he was going and, had he lived, what more unparalleled innovations he might have achieved.
David Bernard’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony is available on Recursive Classics and, by special arrangement is available in full for Gramophone readers to hear for a limited time here. Read Jed Distler’s review for Gramophone here.
Bernard will return to Eglevsky Ballet, to again conduct The Nutcracker, later this month.