The Nutrcracker: I. The Party


PIECE: The Nutcracker

COMPOSER: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

DATE: 1892

GOOD FOR: …Christmas…Honestly, it’s a good time any time of year.

ERA: Romantic

One last thing…there are a lot of productions of this show, as I mentioned in our Intro post. This is how I’m reading the score, but it’s very possible you’ve seen a production, or will in the future, where key plot moments do not exactly line up with what I’ve got here. I’m going off the music! Ballet dancers holla at me if you want to contribute. Everyone else, don’t @ me.


Miniature Overture

In the overture, Tchaikovsky immediately lets us know this is going to be a nice, innocent, good time. He leaves out the cellos and basses as well as the other dominant lower instruments like trombone, immediately creating a lighter texture. The viola gets a cool bass-line so that’s nice for them! The overture features a lot of dotted rhythms, which sound like skipping, almost like children running to the party. Probably works pretty well to hustle late audience members to their seats….

Act I: No 1 The Decoration of the Christmas tree

The curtain comes up and we’re in the Stahlbaum’s home on Christmas Eve. In many Eastern European countries the parents (or “an angel”) decorate the tree and then very magically reveal it to children. Now that the adults are back on the scene, the orchestra hits puberty and drops all its lower instruments into the mix.

ADULT Christmas party

It begins with these lovely little blooming melodies like ornaments getting placed on the tree, or like the embraces of ladies in their fanciest Victorian gowns. There’s a naughty little second melody at 1:14 that suggests some exciting party behavior. Maybe a kid sneaking in to look at the tree? Maybe someone’s makin’ out?

After a big musical swell of excitement, presumably because these people have decorated a whole Christmas tree in 2 minutes, the clock strikes nine. The score is sure to mention that there’s a mechanical owl on the clock fluttering their wings, which you can hear in the orchestra at 2:26, getting little flutters passed around the woodwinds. Excitement builds because everyone on both sides of the doors (parents and CHILDREN) knows that 9pm is CHRISTMAS TREE TIME.

At 2:45 there are some DECISIVE triplets leading into a big timpani drop for a very dramatic door opening to reveal CHRISTMAS.

The media gave me high expectations for this party

In a very tricky little woodwind moment where the meter seems to be ever-shifting under your feet, all the children rush into the room and explore…

…before suddenly (3:19) they are all awestruck as they totally take in the tree. The harp (magical) and the oboe (mysterious) take the fore of the orchestra as the children gape.

Near the end, Judge Stahlbaum (the papa) signals for a march, and you can practically hear him do three fancy-gloved claps on those 3 final pizzicato (plucked) notes.

Act I: No. 2 March

Everyone dances a march together. It’s …martial… so naturally, we hear a lot of the brass section. A frenzied little flute section in the middle suggests an opportunity to choreograph some drama. You’ll hear Tchaikovsky doing that thing we said he loves to do in our intro post: repeating a melody over and over again but with a slight variation in the orchestration every time.

Act I: No.3  Children’s Galop and Entry of the Parents

I just report the facts friends- this plot is historically a little strange. The children do a galop , which is a shuffley Victorian pairs dance. Then something very foreign to modern parties happens, and the parents all re-enter, apparently having snuck off to change into fancy costumes as “incroyables and merveilleuses” (literally just “incredibles and marvels”…maybe they just wore superhero costumes???). It’s …a weird old thing to make fun of French people if I’m understanding it right.

Anyway, at 0:35 they enter to some incredible fancy, pompous music to go along with it and the bass line is so wonderful and worthy of your attention because it is both so fancy and also trying so hard (it’s marked pesante, which means the strings are really sawing away with some force down there), so basically perfectly emulating these floofy, dandy types that the parents are portraying.

Rich people DO have fun don’t they?

Big change of mood at 1:17 as we go into a new prancy little dance presumably so the parents can show off their LEWKS. They are all getting really into the mood as the tambourine just goes mad and the woodwinds and strings start to send up little whoops of joy until everything comes to a very abrupt halt…

Act I: No. 4 Scene Dansante/ Arrival of Drosselmeyer

Recording switch! The other one wasn’t available…

DROSSELMEYER’S HERE Y’ALL. The name Drosselmeyer translates loosely as “someone who stirs things up” and certainly he’s changed the direction we were going musically. A very sketchy, somewhat lurching, viola line along with some snarky brass accompanies his entrance.

As he enters the room, the owl flaps its wings, because Drosselmeyer’s whole thing is that he’s a clockmaker who specializes in creepy clocks that everyone seem to love. At 0:35 in this video, the music changes and oboe (mysterious) and the first violins take over the texture as the children start to notice that Drosselmeyer is a creep but he also has loads of …

Buzz and excitement grow until Drosselmeyer shuts that sht down again. The flutes and violins take over the melody again, signaling that we’re back in our happy, magical orchestration place as he begins to hand out presents. At 1:38, When only the Stahlbaum children are left without presents, Drosselmeyer’s entrance music returns with a little more orchestral support (now the bassoons and bass clarinet have the melody, more than a little sinister + some spooky cymbals). He brings out two boxes, one containing a large cabbage and one containing a large meat pie.

Party guests are like OH HOH HOH WHAT IS THIS?? I love the chromatic “whispers” you can hear in the audience portrayed by the woodwinds at 2:44.

At 3:02, Drosselmeyer is in a better mood now that everyone is paying attention to him. He orders the gifts placed in front of him and POOF a giant doll pops out of the cabbage (did Dumas just invent Cabbage Patch Dolls??) and a soldier pops out of the meat pie.

Because Drosselmeyer is a creepy clock maker, these are creepy mechanical dolls, but these partygoers are pretty charmed by the whole thing. I’M AFRAID OF ROBOTS, IT’S FINE. We hear some of Drosselmeyer’s mechanical noodling and demonstrating in the clarinet line and I like to think the string responses represent the party-goers positive responses.

At 3:36 the doll gets her dance. Tchaikovsky does a lovely job of writing a little mechanical, off-kilter waltz with great little pizzicato DINGS from the strings to accent some good little robot moves.

Exactly one minute later at 4:46 the solider gets his moment. An off-beat accenting ostinato (aka that rockin’ back-beat) keeps the orchestra and the dancer pushing forward as much as possible without losing control to really show off their talents.

Act I. No 5 Scene and Grandfather’s Dance

another sub šŸ™

The Stahlbaum children, Clara and Fritz, are entranced. They want to immediately go off to play with the dolls but their parents cruelly force them to stay at the party with their friends. Clara cries. Fritz sulks. Drosselmeyer irresponsibly rewards this behavior with another new toy…a…NUTCRACKER

At 1:25, Drosselmeyer proudly begins a demonstration (with grace and elegance, as the violin melody is instructed) of how these things work. At 1:48 Tchaikovksy writes the cracking of the nuts into the orchestra for a Schnarre (rattle). This attracts the attention of Fritz, who is a worryingly violent little person and at 2:09 he would like a turn. Clara is reluctant but her parents make her give him a turn and at 2:20, you can practically hear the evil glint in Fritz’s eye as he brings the largest nut in the barrel up to the nutcracker’s mouth, causing it to break at the final death rattle. He laughs and throws the nutcracker onto the floor.

SIBLINGS amirite?
I have no idea, I’m an only child. No one broke my toys but me.

Then at 2:33 Clara has just the absolute saddest-but-sweetest children’s music in the world as she picks up her lil‘ broken friend and comforts it. As she does, the flute transitions to a rocking lullaby melody that is all sugar and spice and things associated with nice young ladies in 1892.

Now we get into some social gender norm reinforcement as she is TWICE interrupted by her brother and his rude BOY friends playing with martial children’s toys like drums and trumpets (4:00, 4:43). Bet those parents regret that they didn’t subvert gender norms and buy their kid a harp now!!

Clara usually gets some girls to join in with her on this dance so she’s not just being totally terrorized in the middle of the stage. She eventually kicks some other doll out of the bed and puts the nutcracker there instead.

Judge Stahlbaum doesn’t feel like dealing with these shenanigans so he pulls off another fancy call to dance, starting with a big Timpani boom at 4:55. They dance the Grossvater which is an actual German dance tune from the 17th century that Tchaikovsky quoted. The whole point of the dance is to have a big stately slow part followed by a short, repetitive, quick section that gets faster and faster the second time(5:47 and 6:28). It’s a fun party dance!

Phew omg you guys that is the whole party. Are you tired? I am, so is Clara. Don’t worry, we’re going to take a little nap next… TB continued in Part 2! “Battlerats”

Looking for another post? Introduction, Part 2: BattleratsĀ Fantastica, Part 3: Snowflakes & Stories (coming soon!), Part 4: SNAX (coming soon!), Part 5: Fance Dance (coming soong!).

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