Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Written as a two-act ballet in 1892, the story is based on T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 short story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Tchaikovsky’s evocative and colorful music, combined with the brilliant choreography of Lev Ivanov and others, have created a timeless Christmas classic.
Today we will hear (and watch) the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This dance was somewhat revolutionary in its time, for it introduced a new instrument to the world: the celeste. Since then, the celeste has been used by Frank Sinatra, Gustav Mahler, John Williams, Bela Bartok, and dozens of other famous musicians. The celeste operates like most of the other keyboard instruments: keys trigger hammers that strike metal plates suspended over wooden resonating blocks. Tchaikovsky used it to create a delicate, sparkling atmosphere that feels magical and childish at the same time.
Our music for this week is the Keyboard Concerto No. 4 in A Major by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is performed by David Fung and the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra.
When Bach wrote this concerto in 1721, the piano (or, in his day, the harpsichord) was a relatively new discovery. It is therefore tempting to think that the concerto was written as a way to showcase the range and versatility of the keyboard. However, Bach originally wrote this concerto for the oboe. When the piano burst onto the musical scene in the early 1700’s, he transposed the oboe concerto into a piano part to try to capitalize on the public frenzy over the instrument.
As is typical of most concerti from the Baroque era, this concerto contains three movements. The first and third movements are faster, while the second movement is more restrained. Those of you who have been with us for a while may notice that the piano solo part is not as prominent as the solo parts from Classical or Romantic-era concerti. In the Baroque era, composers sought to emphasize the ways in which the soloist wove in and out of the accompaniment parts, but later eras sought to feature the soloist in a more virtuosic setting. It is interesting to see that modern concerti (composed after the year 2000) are trending back toward a more Bach-like blended concerto style.