Shumka's Nutcracker

"Clara's Dream"

presented by Northgate Industries Ltd.   Sid and Nellie Braaksma

About the Show

HISTORY

 

TCHAIKOVSKY'S UKRAINIAN DREAMS

By Colin MacLean

 

Pyotr Tchaikovsky

The noble blood of the Ukrainian cossack coursed through Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky's veins. Alright, he was born a couple of generations after the power of the great horsemen of the steppe had waned but he was always proud of his great-grandfather, the Zaporozhian Colonel Fedor, who rode with the fiercely autonomous warriors.

 

The great composer was born in 1840 in Votnisk, a small industrial town in western Russia. He showed a remarkable aptitude for music, writing his first composition at the age of 4. His parents, seeking stability, pushed him into a career as a minor bureaucrat. But the man who was destined to become Russia's greatest composer, couldn't avoid the siren call of music. He went back to school, graduating from the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Tchaikovsky was a master orchestrator weaving fantasy, magic, nationalism and his own personal pain and sexual ambivalence into his works. The people heard his music and recognized themselves.

 

His fame as a composer grew and, much in demand as a conductor, he travelled the world – leading orchestras from Baku to Baltimore. In 1891 he conducted his own Marche Solennelle for the opening of Carnegie Hall in New York. Today he is the second most performed romantic composer in the world (Beethoven is #1) and his music is so often heard, it is hard to imagine that many of his compositions were once reviled by the critics. ("Vulgar and lacking in elevated thought or philosophy," sniffed one.)

 

Tchaikovsky loved Ukraine. His beloved sister, Sasha, married and settled in Kamenka, near Kyiv, on a large estate. He spent many years in Ukraine returning again and again to her home and writing many of his best known works there. The Ukrainian heart has always beaten with the pulse of its own music and Tchaikovsky became fascinated with the folk songs he heard. You could imagine the dapper gentleman from Moscow, with his closely cropped hair and carefully tended beard, striding through a thatch-roofed selo putting little black dots on ruled paper and humming away to himself.

 

The songs he heard found their way into his works – indeed became central to the heart of many pieces as he transformed them, with his refined sense of melody and orchestration, into something quite different. One day he overheard a carpenter singing a song called Sifel Vanya – and it became the main theme of his First String Quartet. (When he heard it for the first time, Tolstoy was famously moved to tears.) Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony, The Little Russian begins with a Ukrainian folk song and is almost completely composed of variations of tunes he heard on his journeys around Ukraine. (Actually "Little Russia" meant Ukraine but it was not politick to refer to the country by this name in the time of the Tsars.) He transposed simple melodies into a series of works ranging from piano solos to grand opera (Mazepa – about a Cossack hero who died trying to free Ukraine from the grip of Peter the Great).

 

Even his most thunderingly nationalistic work, The 1812 Overture, written to celebrate Russia's victory over Napoleon's Grand Armee, and known for its hyperventilating climactic volley of cannon fire, ringing bells, and brass fanfares, would be recognized by any Ukrainian peasant. One of the sprightly dance numbers in the first act of The Nutcracker is an old tune Tchaikovsky first heard in Ukraine. In America it is known as a Civil War song. It's often been called an old Irish fiddle tune. Many a Newfoundlander has been surprised when the local favourite Lots of Fish in Bonavist Harbour pops up in the glittering ballroom scene.

 

Kyiv Opera House

The great composer's Ukrainian ties include a visit to the National Opera of Ukraine in September of 1889 to see his opera, Eugene Onegin. He remarked, "The production, ensemble, level of the actors in Kyiv was better than in Moscow." Because of his respect for the National Opera, he allowed his opera, Pikova Dama (The Queen of Spades) to be premiered there on December 19. He attended in person. The unanimous outpouring of emotion by the audience and cast prompted him to return the next year to conduct a symphonic concert of his own works. Again, he was "… greeted with passionate ovations."

 

Tchaikovsky didn't like the idea of The Nutcracker ballet much. The composer was fresh off the astonishing success of his The Sleeping Beauty but The Nutcracker was proving problematic. The libretto by E.T.A. Hoffman was really two stories. There is the ornate Christmas Eve celebration for young Clara and her family followed by an epic voyage through a fantasy filled land, with a handsome prince as her companion. Each half required a whole new musical approach. And then there was that imperious old nag, choreographer Marius Petipa (who commissioned the work), who badgered the composer with extremely detailed instructions for each number. And there was another, deeper element. As the ballet begins, Clara is a child – when it ends she has left childhood behind and is on the way to transforming into the young lady she will become. But Tchaikovsky persevered and began to warm to the work. "I am daily becoming more and more attuned to my task," he wrote.

 

The ballet was premiered on December 18 in 1892. It was not a success. But the composer, who understood the value of marketing, had assembled a collection of his tunes into a suite intended for concert performances. It became instantly popular. Soon everyone was humming the tunes which set up subsequent, and more successful, productions. Since the ballet is so popular today, and so much a part of our Christmas tradition, it may surprise you to learn it was not until 1954 and an opulent production with the New York City Ballet by George Balanchine, that The Nutcracker would have the ubiquitous success it enjoys today.

 

Perhaps it is because of its origins in Ukrainian folk music, The Nutcracker lends itself so well to Shumka's version of the Hoffman original. This is the only Ukrainian folk ballet based on the timeless tale of Clara's dream with its ferocious mice, menacing magician Drosselmeier, the handsome prince and all the other memorable characters of the child's coming of age fantasia. It was a massive undertaking incorporating Ukrainian traditions, folk and character dance, a grand orchestral version of our best known carol, the Carol of the Bells, as well as Ukrainian symbols woven into the lavish sets and costumes. The spectacular performance also features three of the world's best Ukrainian folk and dance ensembles; our own Ukrainian Shumka Dancers, The Kyiv Ballet and the iconic Virsky – Pavlo Virsky's Ukrainian State Folk Dance Company whose fame, and innovative approach to the art form has spread worldwide. Add that to the energy and grace of Edmonton's Citie Ballet and the sublime voices of Viter Ukrainian Folk Choir. Clara's Dream took years to put together with trips to Ukraine, uncounted phone calls and international rehearsals carried on by that modern miracle, Skype.

 

The performance is a graceful, joyfully conceived presentation of enchantment embracing a classic tale told with care and passion, and reflecting the age-old dance and music traditions of mother Ukraine.

Northgate Industries
Alberta Foundation for the Arts
Shevchenko Foundation
City of Edmonton
Edmonton Arts Council
Lexus of Edmonton
Global Edmonton
World FM
CFCW
630 CHED
Ukrainian News