Everyone has a different idea of when its appropriate to start playing their Christmas music. Some people start the day after Thanksgiving, others wait until December 1st...and then there are those who can't wait and jump the gun as soon as they see the red cups appear at Starbucks. Regardless of when we start, we all have our favorite Christmas albums that we can't wait to dust off (or re-appropriate onto playlists, for those who are fully digital) for the holiday season every year. What does seem to get overlooked every year as we rush to pull out the carols, the classic crooners and the modern day remakes of our favorites are the many pieces composers focused about Christmas. Sure, we have the standards like the Nutcracker and the Messiah, but there are many others that get ignored (when was the last time someone played Poulenc or Messiaen's holiday works...?). So, since I have finished my graduate school applications and need a break from Mahler/Strauss/Gershwin...I thought it would be fun to explore the classical works composed about Christmas. I figure its best to start with the most well known and work our way to the depths of the largely forgotten as we move closer to the big day. What better to start with than the Nutcracker?
Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker (1892) is probably the most widely known of all the compositions about Christmas (for little known trivia and facts about the piece, check last year's post). It has sort of become the resented juggernaut of the ballet industry and all the famous melodies from the suite have been co-opted by advertising agencies to sell everything from airplane tickets to panty hose. However, if you ask someone to sing a song from outside the numbers used in the Nutcracker Suite, most people draw a blank. There are many great melodies that reside elsewhere in the ballet and shouldn't be ignored. A great example is the Intrada from the Pas De Deux that takes place between the "Waltz of the Flowers" and the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies." Another wonderful one is "Christmas Tree", which takes place after "Miniature Overture" when all the guests are arriving for the party. However, this year I've grown most attached to "Into the Christmas Tree," which immediately follows the death of the Rat King when the Nutcracker transforms into human and he and Clara dance together for the first time. This is sometimes also referred to as "A Pine Forest in Winter - aka. Journey through the Snow." Its powerful and strong and stands out as unique against most of the other numbers in the ballet.