Ballerinas dance as snowflakes in "Nutcracker Ballet."

AP file photo

Arts & Culture

Like it or not, it’s ‘Nutcracker’ season

Harvard-Radcliffe conductor Federico Cortese on the history, melody, and ubiquity of a holiday classic

5 min read

Last month, Walt Disney Studios released “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” the latest interpretation of German author E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story of a toy that comes to life to battle a giant mouse king. The best-known “Nutcracker” is a ballet based on Alexander Dumas’ adaptation of Hoffman’s tale, with music by the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The piece premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892, a year before the Tchaikovsky’s death. More than a half-century later, George Balanchine transformed it into an American classic.

“It was Balanchine in New York that made it,” said Harvard’s Federico Cortese, referring to the Russian-born choreographer’s 1954 staging for the New York City Ballet. Through the years, “Nutcracker” directors have played with the cast, set design, and even the storyline, often incorporating the darker elements of Hoffman’s original tale, but it’s the music that remains at the heart of any production.

Cortese, who directs the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, spoke to the Gazette about the enduring appeal of Tchaikovsky’s score.


Federico Cortese

GAZETTE: Do you remember when you first heard “The Nutcracker”?

CORTESE: When I was 12 or 13 there was a friend of the family who was conducting “The Nutcracker” in Rome. I used to go to the rehearsals and performances. I loved it. I loved the whole thing. I loved the orchestra, I loved the rehearsals, I loved the performances, I loved the music.

“As much as I love the music, I have some mixed feelings about it being this sugary kind of Christmas thing.”

GAZETTE: What is it about the music that people find so compelling?

CORTESE: It’s a very colorful piece. It’s wonderful music. Also, there is a great variety of moments. It’s really Tchaikovsky at the height of his maturity. It’s one of his last great works, before his Sixth Symphony, which was his last great work. If you compare the two you see he took a very different approach. “The Nutcracker” is quite light, and wonderfully entertaining, but it is certainly less deep and less personal that the Sixth Symphony.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

In general, Tchaikovsky’s music has an extraordinary wealth of melody and melodic flow, with a harmonic language that is rich and often intense, even if probably one would not call it groundbreaking.

He loves dissonances. However, in a letter he wrote openly that dissonance has to be justified by melodic needs and has to resolve properly. He is not somebody who explores the effect of dissonance for the sake of it. Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky loved the idea of unusual dissonant chords for the sake of it. Tchaikovsky would have never done that, but he has a very good ear for beautiful orchestration. There’s always something elegant and fluent and melodically and harmonically rich in his music.

He was accused of being structurally less rigorous than his German counterparts, which is both true and unfair. We have erected German music as the paradigm of what music should be, which is understandable, as long we don’t end up accusing those who don’t use that German vocabulary of being shallow. Tchaikovsky was less interested in the complexity of the structure and the intricacies of the harmonic language than, let’s say, the line of composers from Brahms to Schoenberg. But that doesn’t mean he is a less fascinating composer. He’s extraordinarily captivating and extraordinarily seductive in his music, which is what makes him so popular and deservedly so.

GAZETTE: Can you talk about the celesta, the instrument that produces that ethereal tinkling that has become so inextricably tied to “The Nutcracker”? Tchaikovsky uses it in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” in the ballet’s second act, to evoke an otherworldly realm.

Clip from “The Nutcracker Suite” by Peter Tchaikovsky; Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, recorded Nov. 10, 1926, at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia

CORTESE: The celesta is like a small piano, though it has fewer keys, and the mechanics are a bit different — instead of strings the celesta’s hammers strike pieces of metal. It has a very peculiar sound, and a peculiar color, which of course was handy in creating a peculiar sound for one of the ballet’s folkloric dances. He chose an instrument that was unusual so the sound could not be associated with anything traditionally Western but rather with something much more exotic. The ballet features a series of dances from various parts of the world, and Tchaikovsky was trying to give them a specific character with his instrumentation. At the time there was a very strong taste for exoticism because Russia had begun expanding toward the southeast.

GAZETTE: Have you conducted “The Nutcracker” with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra?

CORTESE: I never programmed it for the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, not because I don’t love it, but because at some point it became cliché. If I told the students that we were going to do it, they would say fine, but they, and I, are more fascinated by the idea of exploring something else. Even by Tchaikovsky — for example, operas such as “Eugene Onegin” or “Pique Dame.”

Part of the problem is that it has also been tied so closely to Christmas that it gets wrapped up in the commercialism of the season. As much as I love the music, I have some mixed feelings about it being this sugary kind of Christmas thing. That’s a very American thing, to be honest; in Europe it didn’t start that way. Even though I know it by heart I don’t identify it with Christmas at all.

GAZETTE: Is there music tied to the season that you would prefer to perform?

CORTESE: I would go for Bach. His Advent cantatas and Christmas oratorio are incredibly beautiful.

Interview was edited for clarity and length.