Today we revere Tchaikovsky primarily as a composer of highly romantic orchestral music, but he was perhaps even more a man of the theatre. True, only two or three of his many operas remain in the standard repertoire of the world’s opera houses, but with the arrival of increasing numbers of outstanding Russian musicians on the international scene, his reputation as an opera composer is becoming deservedly enhanced.
Perhaps because there are no words to provide an obstacle, the popularity of his three great ballets, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker has been constant. In the theatre they represent the pinnacle of the Russian ballet tradition, and the concert suites continue to draw capacity audiences to the great concert halls of the world.
So central is their position in the world of classical ballet that it is difficult to remember just how revolutionary they were. Before Tchaikovsky, the ballet had been essentially a French art form, derived from the 18th-century baroque opera-ballets of Lully and Rameau in which the dance was as essential a component as the singing. In earlier 19th-century French ballets, the music was definitely subservient to the dance, and the ballet-master held sway.
What Tchaikovsky achieved, together with his choreographers, was to fuse music and dance into a synthesis in which the two elements merged into a single work of art. New, too, was the level of the dramatic content, an extended and subtle narrative yielding a whole evening’s performance rather than the largely disconnected pot-pourri of separate dances which had characterised earlier ballets. The stage action and the music formed a single symphonic whole.
Having said that, The Nutcracker is the least ‘symphonic’ of the three Tchaikovsky ballets. It was commissioned by Ivan Vsyevolozhky, the Director of the Russian Imperial Theatres. Vsyevolozhky had previously commissioned The Sleeping Beauty from Tchaikovsky, and was looking to the composer for another great success. Tchaikovsky’s choreographer then had been Marius Petipa, and he was invited to renew their collaboration. For his subject, Petipa chose a short story called The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by the German fantastical writer (and music critic) E.T.A. Hoffmann (this, in turn, was based on a story by the French writer Alexandre Dumas (père).
This time, Petipa gave Tchaikovsky a very detailed outline of his requirements: the musical style of each dance, even its duration. Tchaikovsky, who would have preferred a freer hand, was unhappy, and took his time writing the music.
Vsyevolozhky’s plan was for the new ballet to be performed as the first part of a double bill with Tchaikovsky’s short opera Iolanta (which is why The Nutcracker is shorter than the other two Tchaikovsky ballets). It was in this context that The Nutcracker first saw the light at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on 18th December 1892. The choreography was not well received, but the music was hailed as “astonishingly rich in inspiration” and “beautiful, melodious, original and characterful from beginning to end.”
Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969)
Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet was the Music Director of the Orchestre da la Suisse Romande at a time of great advances in recorded sound. The OSR was his creation, his greatest life’s work and he was their conductor for nigh on fifty years, from 1918 to 1967. During the Second World War, Decca engineers in London, under the leadership of Arthur Haddy, had perfected a way of achieving recordings of unprecedented frequency range. After the war, they applied their technology to music recording, branding it ffrr (full frequency range recording) and nowhere was it put to more impressive use than in Geneva’s Victoria Hall, home of Ansermet and his orchestra who were by now under exclusive contract to the label. The new recordings were a sensation and gave Decca a technical superiority on which they continued to build over the next fifty years.
Ansermet was born into a musical family in Vevey, Switzerland on 11th November 1883. He took piano lessons from his mother and had already composed his first piano pieces by the time he was seven. While at school he conducted the school wind band and took full advantage of the concert life in nearby Montreux and Lausanne. He soon became fascinated by mathematics, recognising the close relationship between it and music. They were to be his principal study, and he became as proficient a mathematician as a musician. Indeed, he began his career as a maths teacher. In 1905 he moved to Paris to study mathematics at the Sorbonne. Music was inescapable, however, and he took lessons in counterpoint at the Paris Conservatoire and assisted the composer-conductor Vincent d’Indy. Thence to Berlin, to study percussion and, more significantly, to observe the greatest conductors of the age, Richard Strauss, Mottl, Muck and Arthur Nikisch (he was particularly inspired by the latter).
Ansermet’s first major conducting appointment came in Montreux in 1912: music had finally trumped over mathematics. In the course of his recording career, from 1916 to 1968, he recorded 296 works by 63 composers, mostly with the OSR. Among his most notable contributions were his ground-breaking recordings of the music of Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel. He made the first Decca stereo recording in 1958. He was given the personal award of the Grand Prix du Disque in recognition of his life’s contribution to recording. Ansermet’s recordings, mono and stereo, have won a new worldwide audience in digital transfers, where his mastery of orchestral colour and texture can be appreciated as never before.
Sleeve notes by John Kehoe