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About this Piece

Our midwinter holidays bring light into the darkest days of the year, each in their own ways—but music always casts the warmest glow. The Christmas Eve setting of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker has helped it to become one of America’s most beloved Christmas traditions (we can thank the San Francisco Ballet of the 1940s), even though the composer had nothing of the sort in mind. By 1960, the potential appeal of updating Tchaikovsky’s score was obvious enough to a savvy musician like Duke Ellington.

   Although separated by a century, the demands of the Romantic-era Russian ballet and the elaborate stage shows of New York City’s Cotton Club in the late 1920s presented similar challenges to Tchaikovsky and Ellington. The need for variety was paramount, meaning constant shifts in musical mood and style, but at the same time continuity was necessary. Exoticism was an audience favorite in both settings, and each composer had to take into account the choreography, making sure rhythms and tempos would allow the dancers to show their skills to the best effect.

   The overtures in each case set the tone and show the range of timbre, volume, and articulation possible in each of their respective orchestras. Both are also elegant and balanced, whether in terms of the classicism that Tchaikovsky gleaned from Mozart and Haydn or the carefully calibrated swing of Ellington’s band. What typically follows in any concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s music is a selection from among the “characteristic dances,” which contrast style, tempo, and orchestration in order to conjure the various members of the court of the Sugar-Plum Fairy. As most conductors do, Ellington selected some, but not all, of these dances in order to show off the members of his band.

   Ellington’s “Toot, Toot, Tootie, Toot” is the closest to its source material, although the innovations set the tone for what is to come. Where Tchaikovsky had piping flutes and bassoons over a quiet string ostinato, Ellington has the reed section divided into clarinets and saxes in close alternation, over a relaxed groove in the rhythm section, with more forceful interjections from the brass. The melancholy, resonant English horn solo becomes a series of broad smears with cup mutes in the trombones. Where the middle portion of Tchaikovsky’s dance is an exoticized whirling dervish, with trumpets over an ostinato in the low strings and brass, Ellington instead lets the band break out into an improvisatory section with the clarinet in the lead.

   The two marches also make for an interesting comparison—similar in spirit but executed on their own terms. Tchaikovsky’s quick marche militaire is all about precision of articulation and brilliance in figuration and orchestration. Although the brightness of trumpet also figures in Ellington’s “Peanut Brittle Brigade,” the virtuosity shines through most clearly in a series of up-tempo, boppish solo choruses for trumpet, clarinet, tenor sax, and piano.

   Tchaikovsky’s indifference to his own score for The Nutcracker is famous, but the “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” allowed him to showcase a new instrument that fascinated him—the celesta—making it perhaps the only part of the score he was pleased with. The twinkling, ethereal sound of the instrument, accompanied only by delicate pizzicatos, does make for a magical atmosphere—and it is here that Ellington and Strayhorn part ways with Tchaikovsky in all but the melody they borrowed. Over a slow vamp from the drummer, using the evocative toms, the tenor saxophone struts through “Sugar Rum Cherry,” encouraged by occasional smears and growls in the brass.

   The blistering trepak of Tchaikovsky’s Russian Dance becomes the energetic bounce of the “Volga Vouty.” In another reversal, Tchaikovsky’s graceful, but somewhat melancholy and restrained “Waltz of the Flowers” becomes an opportunity for almost every member of the band to have a virtuosic turn in the rousing series of swing choruses that make up “Dance of the Floreadores.” —Katherine Baber, Ph.D., Professor of Music and Director of the Salzburg Program, University of Redlands