Jeux des sons – and Christmas in St Petersburg

December 20 2011

Balanchine, cited here the other day, and in the spirit of looking freshly at Tchaikovsky:

“What are Tchaikovsky’s orchestral suites about? […] The first movement of the Second Suite is called Jeu des sons. What does that mean? […]

“The first movement of the First Suite is sheer genius, it’s complete in itself. We used to dance the march from that suite in Russia in the ballet The Fairy Doll, conducted by old Drigo. The Third Suite is a masterpiece. Think of that waltz: gloomy, almost grim, but not in the least sentimental! And that waltz is orchestrated masterfully; it starts in the violas, then goes to the lower register of the flutes. You can’t stop listening closely. The last movement of the Third Suite, Theme and Variations, is now played rather frequently. The theme is so elegant and restrained – sheer Mozart!”

The suites stand in something like the same relation to his symphonies as Brahms’s serenades do to his, but they don’t predate the symphonies. They aren’t well-known. They have his brilliance and charm, but not every movement is equally successful. There is an experimental feel to some of them. The Third Suite strikes a deeper note.

They are the other side of the Tchaikovskyan moon. Jeu des sons: what a modern name! It looks sideways to Liszt and forward to Ravel. It’s a strange movement. Doesn’t it begin with a quotation from Beethoven’s Pastoral? The Tchaikovsky of Nutcracker influenced Ravel in a very direct way.

Even the variations at the end of the Third Suite are not known to most people now. Adrian Boult’s recording of that suite with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra is one of the great Tchaikovsky recordings. There is a recording of the Second and Third with the Moscow Philharmonic under Kondrashin.

The Fourth Suite is a set of Mozart arrangements called Mozartiana.

The march in the First Suite, the fourth movement of six, is a sort of Nutcracker number a dozen or so years before the Nutcracker. He composed it in Florence, where he would later write Pique-Dame. It looks forward to the children’s chorus at the beginning of that opera, where the children are like toy soldiers. There is a hint of the Waltz of the Flowers. It is less refined than what we have in the Nutcracker (sounds like a failed precursor), but according to Jurgenson, his publisher, the audience at the first performance in Moscow under Rubinstein, December 20 (Gregorian) 1878, was enchanted: the march “drew applause which would not stop until it was repeated”.

Performers not stated. Despite the picture, I don’t think the piece has anything to do with Christmas. Balanchine again:

“The Nutcracker is a ballet about Christmas. We used to have a fantastic Christmas in Petersburg. Ah, how fantastic it was! For me, Christmas was something extraordinary. Naturally, Christmas is no Easter. At Easter the church bells pealed joyously throughout the night! Nothing is like Easter. But for Christmas St Petersburg was all dark and somehow strange. It wasn’t the way it is now, with everyone shouting, running around as if it’s a fire instead of Christmas. Back in Petersburg there was a stillness, a waiting: Who’s being born? Christ is born!

“I’ve never seen a Christmas like we had in Petersburg anywhere else – not here in America nor in France. It’s hard for us old Petersburgers! I tried to get people in the Orthodox church in New York to take Christmas more seriously, more solemnly, with understanding. But nothing came of it. They get to church with their candles and it starts: ha-ha-ha, ho-ho-ho. Russian talk, gossip. It’s all wrong!

“In Petersburg they had the Christmas service at nearby St Vladimir’s. And naturally in all the big cathedrals: at the Kazan, at St Isaac’s. An unforgettable moment of mystery: when the candles were put out, the church was plunged into darkness, and the choir came in. They sang magnificently! In the Orthodox church, the service is a real theatrical production with processions and all that. The priests come out in pairs wearing velvet kamilavka on their heads, the deacons and altar boys in brocade vestments. And finally, chasuble glittering, the Metropolitan himself.

“On Christmas night we had only the family at home: mother, auntie, and the children. And, of course, the Christmas tree. The tree had a wonderful scent, and the candles gave off their own aroma of wax. The tree was decorated with gold paper angels and stars, tangled up in silver ‘rain’ or tinsel. I liked the fat glass pears – they didn’t break if they fell.

“Of course, we all expected presents. We weren’t wealthy, so we children didn’t get big presents, just a few things. Once I received a watch that didn’t run. I was wildly ecstatic – both because the watch didn’t run and because it was mine!”

Solomon Volkov, Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky: Interviews with George Balanchine, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1985.

It’s an interesting passage, but one wonders whether the Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease which killed him (it was only diagnosed after his death) was beginning to make itself felt.

Waltz of the Snowflakes, end of Act 1, The Nutcracker, London Festival Orchestra, conductor and chorus not stated. Better and more mysterious than a Dresdner Staatskapelle version also on YouTube.

5 Responses to “Jeux des sons – and Christmas in St Petersburg”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    These four orchestral suites and the selections from the Nutcracker are the only works that Tchaikovsky called suite.

    Tchaikovsky would have enjoyed (some) YouTube comments more than those of official critics. Apropos the snowflakes:

    “i’m dancing in the first act of the nutcracker this year and i stay and watch everyone else rehearse after me… but i’m really there because the music is so amazing”

    Someone else:

    “the absolute greatness of music like this.” 

  2. davidderrick Says:

    “The three great geniuses of the twentieth century, Stravinsky, Nabokov and Balanchine” is surely a ridiculous statement (among others, not that I wish to take anything away from Balanchine) by Edmund White in City Boy, but he writes compellingly about Balanchine’s presence in New York in the ’70s.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    I was nervous writing that Boult’s Paris recording of the third suite was one of the great Tchaikovsky recordings. Was that just me? Boult? Had anyone ever said that before? I am glad to say that a different, later Boult recording – with the London Philharmonic – was selected as the best of all recordings of this work by Jonathan Swain in the venerable BBC Radio 3 Building a Library series on December 31. He rejects the 1955 Paris version on the grounds of the quality of the recording and orchestra, but I am not sure that I agree. Boult was 85 when he made the London version. I got to know the Paris recording on LP, where the sound may well have been better than in its subsequent digital transfer.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    BAL (June 30) also gives Boult’s T3 (Polish), London Philharmonic, 1956, high marks. Boult is also very good in Capriccio Italien, BBCSO and perhaps others.

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