December 03, 2010
Original production of The Nutcracker. Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, 1892. Photo from Wikipedia.
Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.
I unashamedly and wholeheartedly love Christmas music. Listening to it, singing it, playing it on the piano—all get a big thumbs up from me. The Dylan Thomas quote above is the last paragraph of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, which is without a doubt the most poetic, accurate and wistful account of the holidays through a child’s eyes. And I have many happy memories of music on Christmas night as well: every year I play the piano, the family sings carols, and at that minute it feels most like Christmas.
My favorite Christmas song is Angels We Have Heard on High. What’s not to love about a chorus that features the mother of all melismas: “Glo-o-o-o-o, O-o-o-o-o, O-o-o-o-o, O-ri-a in Ex-cel-sis De-o!” In terms of recorded renditions, I am either proud or sad (can’t decide which) to say I’m a big fan of Herb Alpert’s burlesque-inflected version of “Jingle Bell Rock.” It’s wrong AND right— listen to it and you’ll see what I mean.
But in the battle royale for the official Most Christmasy Classical Work, the two contenders are, of course, The Nutcracker and Messiah. I guess they can be co-captains of Christmasness, with Nutcracker as the secular winner, and Messiah as the sacred one.
The Nutcracker has some of the best orchestral writing ever. I’ll admit Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe Suite No. 2 gives Tchaikovsky a run for his money in the orchestration department, but Nutcracker has such a range of mood and tone. Think of the “Chocolate,” “Coffee” and “Tea” dances (aka “Spanish,” “Arabian” and “Chinese” dances) from the second act, and how each sounds so different and unique — both musically and instrumentally. The English horn and tambourine in “Coffee” are so mysterious and evocative, and seem worlds away from the icily delicate celesta used in “Dance of The Sugar Plum Fairy.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music unkindly writes that “much of the harmonic language is essentially simple, even trite, and some of the melodic material is naïve almost to the point of banality.” OUCH. And I disagree. Tchaikovsky obviously did something right since the ballet is still performed every year all over the world….
This might not make any sense, but for me, the dreamlike atmosphere of The Nutcracker makes me look inwards. I think it’s a work each person reacts to by themselves and in their own way — who doesn’t get swept up in the music and story and put themselves in the shoes of Clara or the Prince and think about what it must feel like to visit the Land of Sweets? You watch the ballet in a theatre with other people, but you experience it alone and in your own way. Each person has their own emotional connection to the piece. It’s childlike, it’s elegant, it’s magical. And your experience with it is yours alone.
Handel’s Messiah, on the other hand, is a collective expression of joy, of togetherness, of thankfulness. There’s a reason the Hallelujah Chorus is for chorus, not soloist. It is an exultation that is shared among all the performers and audience members. Even the solos are stirring: “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted” has so much life and energy it makes you sit up a little straighter. Somehow the oratorio is a piece that makes you feel like you are part of something larger. Last year I went to the Messiah Sing-Along at the LA Master Chorale, and that is the best way to experience the piece — as a participant. You become enveloped in the music and intricate counterpoint and get swept away by the sound of many voices and instruments sounding at full volume. Even during slower and more sedate sections of the work, there is some internal force that pushes you forwards. It is a work that cannot help but make you feel uplifted.
I guess the two works are more complimentary than I had thought: the secular yin to the sacred yang, a whisper vs. a proclamation. With The Nutcracker, you are on the outside looking in, and with Messiah you are inside the piece, gazing out.
Are you Team Nutcracker or Team Messiah? Take the poll!
What’s your favorite Christmas song? Let us know in the comments!