Tag Archives: Tchaikovsky

When the Beatles met the sugar plum fairy

When I was still a little child, my acquaintance with the world of classical ballet (and I suspect not just mine) was made through The NutcrackerIt was love at first sight (and hearing), as the delightful music of Tchaikovsky coupled with a most extraordinary set of characters such as the Mouse King, the Nutcracker Prince with his soldiers, and of course the Sugar Plum Fairy.

One of Tchaikovsky’s most celebrated works, the immense popularity of The Nutcracker owes much to a tradition that started in 1954, when the New York City Ballet first performed the ballet choreographed by George Balanchine. The company has since performed the ballet every year during the Christmas season with great success, paving the way for a growing number of performances across the world by several ballet companies in the years that followed.

‘Best of Balanchine’, performed by the Dutch National Ballet in the Amsterdam Music Theater

In 1965, the British orchestral composer Arthur Wilkinson made a very special arrangement of music by The Beatles, blending some of their well-known tunes with movements from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. The result of this peculiar musical marriage was called the Beatle Cracker Suite.

A musical allusion to Tchaikovsky’s popular ballet can also be found  in the film Magical Mystery Tour. It was the Beatles’ producer George Martin who, seeing that the opening strain of All My Loving is almost identical to the melody from Nutcracker’s Pas de deux but turned upside down, decided to arrange the song à la Tchaikovsky for the film’s background music.

The most intriguing manifestation of the unique relationship between the Russian master and the British pop stars was perhaps one not made through notes. It would be, however, captured on record through the soft, rather lazy and yet mysterious-sounding voice of Lennon, as he was whispering “sugar-plum-fairy, sugar-plum-fairy” into the microphone during the intro of the epic A Day in the Life (as can be heard in the Love version of the song).

It appears the little fairy’s dance had taken her all the way from Russia’s imposing music theaters to the Abbey Road Studios in London amidst the swinging sixties. What an honor indeed to have been summoned by The Beatles on such a special day in their life. No doubt Tchaikovsky would not have minded her leaving home!

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A hymn to unfulfilled love

In most cases, books are admittedly better than the movies they serve as a basis for.  But can the same be said about music adaptations? What about all those cases where novels and poems become a chief source of inspiration for great composers, leading to the creation of some of their most stunning and everlasting masterpieces?

I remember reading Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin when I was still in highschool, my teenage mind trying to reconstruct the novel’s theatrical setting and visualize its vivid characters. I would picture Onegin as a proud, fine-looking dandy kindly rejecting the love and pure feelings of young Tatyana, a landowner’s charming and shy daughter of introspective nature. Furthermore, I would try to follow how a silly quarrel could end with the fatal duel between Onegin and his good friend Lensky and how, finally, Onegin’s feelings for Tatyana would change when they would meet again many years later, their roles now having been reversed.

These fading images and scarce recollections of Pushkin’s novel came back to me recently, after watching Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin performed by the Stanislavski Opera at the Royal Theater Carré in Amsterdam.

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I’ve never been a big opera enthusiast, but works such as this always make me think of the considerably powerful effect opera can have when performed convincingly and given the right context. In the case of Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music adds a whole new dimension to the familiar story, and it feels as if Pushkin’s masterpiece has been translated into a universal language that brings out its very essence, making it accessible to anyone with enough sensitivity and eagerness to partake in the dramatic events happening on stage.

Although Eugene Onegin touches upon several intriguing themes such as social conventions and the link between reality and fiction, it is ultimately a tragic story about unfulfilled love. It is evocative of the very human cry of desperation on behalf of the broken-hearted that has been repeatedly expressed through art since antuiquity, as in Sappho’s prayer in Hymn to Aphrodite:

Hear and heal a suppliant’s pain:

Let not love be love in vain!

Unlike Pushkin’s dark finale, Sappho’s hymn ends with Aphrodite’s promise to resolve the intense pain and the goddess’s assurance that the reluctant lover will soon know love as intense as that suffered by the poet:

Soon, thro’ long reluctance earn’d,

Love refused be Love return’d.

In Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, it is the sheer magic and moving power of music that serves as a substitute for such divine intervention, bringing thus consolation and a much-needed catharsis to the agony of the audience.