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The Nutcracker

On 18th December 1892, Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker was premiered at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Although the ballet is now popular throughout the world, the premiere was not well received, with popularity only coming after Tchaikovsky worked the music into a Suite.

Following the success of Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky was looking for inspiration for his next ballet and a gift of a new Russian translation of E.T.A Hoffmann’s story Nussknacker und Mausekönig gave him a story he could work with. It has been suggested that his love of the ballet Coppelia by Delibes, premiered in 1870, which was also based on two Hoffmann stories, Der Sandmann (The Sandman) and Die Puppe (The Doll) may have influenced his decision. Hoffmann’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig mixes reality and fantasy and there is some debate as to whether it was written as a children’s story or not due to the philosophical content and allusions unlikely to have been understood by children.

Tchaikovsky had collaborated with Marius Petipa on Sleeping Beauty, and so they set out to work together on The Nutcracker. Petipa took Hoffmann’s story and provided a scenario with detailed notes on action and dance plan with some suggestions for the music. However Petipa fell ill and passed the task to Lev Ivanov who had worked with him on Sleeping Beauty. Ivanov had previous devised the dances for Borodin’s Prince Igor and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada.

The ballet is now a firm family favourite, and tells the story of a Christmas gathering where Drosselmeyer, a local councilman, toymaker and magician appears. He brings dancing dolls to entertain the children, then gives Clara and Fritz a toy for them: A wooden nutcracker which is carved in the shape of a man. Clara immediately takes a liking to it however Fritz breaks it, leaving Clara upset. Once everyone is in bed, Clara creeps downstairs to check on the broken Nutcracker and as the clock strikes midnight she sees Drosselmeyer on top of the Christmas tree which begins to grow as does the nutcracker. Mice appear, led by their King and begin to fight with an army of gingerbread soldiers.

The nutcracker leads the army of gingerbread soldiers and tin soldiers, as the Mouse King advances on the still-wounded nutcracker, Clara throws her slipper at him, distracting him long enough for the nutcracker to stab him.

As the mice retreat, in true fairy tale style, the nutcracker transforms into a handsome price, leading Clara to his Kingdom through a pine forest in the snow.

The second act begins in the Land of Sweets which is being ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Prince’s absence. When Clara and the Prince arrive, he tells how Clara saved him from the Mouse King and returned him to his human form. To celebrate his return and to honour Clara, a celebration is staged with dances from around the world, ending with a performance by the Sugar Plum Fairy.

A final dance is performed by all the sweets, before 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.

For the full ballet, watch the Mariinsky Theatre’s performance here:

Having been influenced by Haydn’s Toy Symphony and Bernhard Romberg’s Kinder-Symphonie, Tchaikovsky includes some unusual instruments in the scoring of The Nutcracker including toy trumpet, rattle and bird calls. He also included a celeste. He wrote in a letter:

I have discovered a new orchestral instrument in Paris, something between a small piano and a Glockenspeil, which a divinely beautiful tone… I want to ask you to order one of these instruments… have it sent direct to Petersburg; but no-one there must know about it. I am afraid that Rimsky-Korsakov or Glazunov might hear of it and make use of the new effect before I can.

After the premier of the ballet, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother

The staging … was splendid … even too splendid – one’s eyes grew tired of this luxuriance.

There were mixed reviews of the first performance, The St Petersburg Gazette stated:

A more tedious work was never seen…

However, the St Petersburg News-sheet declared

Concerning the music of this ballet, it is hard to say which number is best, for everything from beginning to end is beautiful, melodious, original and individual.

It is this view that seems to resonate with audiences of the ballet and the suite today.

For a sneaky peek at how the Royal Ballet create the wonder and spectacle of The Nutcracker at The Royal Opera House, watch this video:

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

As Christmas approaches, there’s always a race for the number-one spot in the charts. This year the Music Workshop Company team have been discussing their favourite seasonal music and have come up with their own top songs. Here’s a little bit about each of the team and their Christmas choices.

Maria Thomas is the Artistic Director and Founder of The Music Workshop Company. She specialises in Early Years, Creativity workshops and World Percussion workshops.

“My favourite is the 1961 song Christmas Time in London Town (words by Frederik Van Pallandt, music by David Flatau).

It was a favourite at my Mum’s school and I love the imagery in the words. It reminds me of trips to London as a child to choose a present in Hamley’s!

I also love the Calypso Carol/O Now Carry Me to Bethlehem, which is another favourite from childhood. I love the Calypso rhythm.”

Matthew Forbes is a cellist who also plays piano, mouth organ, kazoo, djembe, guitar, and mandolin…. And is a composer! Matthew leads workshops on Composition, Song Writing, Indian Music, African Drumming and Ceilidh.

“Easy. It’s Fairytale of New York by Kirsty MacColl and The Pogues. It has everything; sad, funny, ironic, moving, energetic, sentimental and festive. Perfect”

Colin McCann is a percussionist who specialises in Samba workshops but also loves leading Junk Percussion workshops.

“My favourite is In The Bleak Midwinter (words based on a poem by Christina Rossetti and music by Gustav Holst). I love the words; they are so emotive.”

Chris Woodham is a professional percussionist who specialises in World Percussion workshops but also loves leading Composition workshops.

“My favourite Christmas Song is When a Child is Born, by Boney M, (written by Zacar with lyrics by Fred Jay) which was released in 1981, the year of my birth.

It’s from the Christmas Album by Boney M that used to be a firm favourite in the Woodham household.  I’ve always been drawn to reggae, and the album includes lots of lovely ‘reggaefied’ classic songs.  I really like When a Child is born because it uses humming then a full choir and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, also has some spoken word and a key change. What’s not to like! It was recorded at Abbey Road and Air studios both of which I have been lucky enough to work at in the past.”

Sarah Ford is an actor, director and singer, and leads many of our theatrical workshops such as Play in a Day.

“My favourites are Angels from The Realms of Glory (words by James Montgomery to the tune of “Regent Square” UK) and Hark the Herald Angels Sing (music by Felix Mendelssohn, words by Charles Wesley, amended by George Whitefield and Martin Madan).

The first one is because it’s a grand, full-out sing and the second because I love singing the descant.”

Johanna McWeeney is a violinist and journalist who writes and edits the Music Workshop Company blog and newsletters.

“My favourite Christmas piece is Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, an orchestral piece that dates back to 1948. The lyrics weren’t written until 1950. I just love the melodies, the witty use of percussion and the fun textures from the brass, particularly the horse at the end. It really conjures up Christmas for me and it’s great fun to play.”

Alison Murray is the Project Manager for the Music Workshop Company and liaises with clients to help them find their perfect project.

“Once In Royal David’s City, music composed by Henry John Gauntlet (1805-1876), words written by Cecil Francis Alexander (1818-1895), originally written as a poem.

Why?  The words of the song are so beautifully written, simple yet so meaningful, and of course when you hear the solo at the beginning, the sound is so pure and spine tingling. I have sung this song myself so often, since primary school days (a very long time ago now!) and we always sing it our church crib service, with everyone around the crib holding candles, it’s just magical.”

Play in a Day

The Music Workshop Company’s “Play in a Day” workshop grew indirectly from Maria’s experience organising school plays and concerts. The aim of the workshop is for participants to work together with workshop leaders and teachers to stage a play in just one day.

The idea for “Play in a Day” came from talking to primary school teachers with no music or drama specialism. Many teachers found it hard to know where to start when asked to put on a performance, and others were too busy to spend weeks planning and preparing.

Putting on an affordable, successful production requires experience and confidence, and it takes time to find a story, research music and co-ordinate a performance. It takes a level of expertise to judge what the participants can achieve in the time, individually and as a group, and to know how best to use performance space, instrumentation and choreography. This is where MWC excels.SAM_1669

“Play in a Day” was developed for schools and community groups; Brownies, Guides, Cubs, Scouts and holiday clubs. In the course of a day, workshop participants learn songs, dances and percussion pieces from around the world, or from different periods in history. The workshop utilises simple, effective pieces that are quick and easy to learn, which allows participants to perform to a high standard within the intensive one-day framework. These pieces are linked through dialogue into a play with music.

One of our favourite themes for “Play in a Day” is a Magic Carpet story, a trip around the World where the main characters get to experience many different cultures. The performance includes singing, dancing and percussion, depending on which countries are visited. In previous workshops the magic carpet has stopped off in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Israel, Palestine, India, Egypt, Ghana, South Africa, China, Japan and Brazil.

Sometimes the play is themed to incorporate International events like the World Cup or the Olympics, or it can tell the story of a festival such as Christmas. We can make a play to fit around specific topics, countries or cultures being studied by the children in other lessons, or even tell a Time Travel story.

When we’re working with a school, several classes will join together to create a performance. Each class will learn at least two pieces of music, which the MWC team choose to suit, amongst other things, the theme of the play and the age of the participants. These pieces are often picked on the day so they really work for each specific workshop group.

A workshop for four primary school classes, working with up to 35 children in each session, will contain a performance incorporating at least eight pieces, which can last from 20 to 30 minutes in total.

Sometimes participants choose to give their final performance to the rest of the school or to invite parents along, and even to make a video of the play to use in the school.

“Play in a Day” is a brilliant activity for primary school children, which was how the original concept was devised. It’s also an ideal workshop for all ages and abilities, in schools, or in community settings where we can work with up to 40 participants. Workshop leaders adapt the workshop to the abilities, creative inspiration and needs of the students.

One of our focuses at MWC is to work with clients to create workshops tailored specifically to their needs. “Play in a Day” is the perfect vehicle to design this sort of customised workshop, and to take advantage of the skills and knowledge of our workshop leaders and musicians to produce a wonderful performance that the children will learn from, be proud of and enjoy!

To enquire about our “Play in a Day” workshop, please contact the MWC team to discuss your requirements, pick a theme and book a day for your play.

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