Classical music comes into its own at Christmas, maybe more than any other time of the year. That’s not to say it’s better at Christmas. It isn’t. If anything, the works you’re most likely to hear at Christmas have come to seem a bit mothballed by literally centuries of overexposure. But while we spend the rest of the year obsessed with the new and the novel and anything that won’t stretch the capacities of our attention spans, at Christmastime people dutifully revert to valuing tradition.
Enter your local symphony orchestra.
At their best, orchestras are not in fact the bastions of tradition that they’re sometimes credited with or accused of being. But Christmas is the one time when they can just sit back, relax and do what comes naturally without anybody sniping at them from the peanut gallery. So, let’s explore the origins of a couple of musical traditions that run deep: pieces of music that are synonymous with the season.
We’ve already done Messiah, so we’ll turn our focus to the runners-up: another baroque oratorio that pre-dates Messiah by seven years, and a romantic ballet that had already reached Mariah Carey-levels of ubiquity when the mass culture era was barely underway.
J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio
When Bach unveiled his Christmas Oratorio in 1734, he was working in the job that he’d hold for the last 27 years of his life: choirmaster at the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, Germany. For complicated bureaucratic reasons, this seemingly mundane teaching position also required Bach to compose music for performance in Leipzig’s four major churches. Which, of course, is why he wanted the job — and why he put up with some of its more bizarre points: he was obligated to teach Latin, walk in front of all coffins at all funerals, and he couldn’t leave Leipzig without the permission of the city council.
But the perks must have outweighed all of this. After all, the first audiences for the Christmas Oratorio (and the vast majority of Bach’s more large-scale works) were not concertgoers, but churchgoers. This meant that thousands of people would have heard Bach’s music in his lifetime without ever necessarily making the conscious choice to do so. Contrast that with the premiere of Handel’s Messiah, seven years later: it was held in a church, but as a charity concert rather than a routine service. People paid to hear Handel’s Christmas masterpiece; people heard Bach’s Christmas masterpiece because they happened to go to church. And when you are less of a celebrity than George Frideric Handel (Bach had barely managed to secure the Leipzig position at all), one imagines this arrangement might be the best possible thing.
Churchgoing was a more intense practice in those days than it is for most Protestants today. You can discern that much from the details of the Christmas Oratorio’s premiere alone. The oratorio as we know it today is split into six parts. Each of those parts constitutes a bespoke piece in itself, and the oratorio was originally written to be performed as six separate cantatas, on six separate occasions. Namely, six separate Christmas-related church services in late December and early January at the two largest churches in Leipzig.
So, at its initial performances, only those who were willing to attend church six times in two weeks would have actually heard the Christmas Oratorio in its entirety. If Messiah was the oratorio equivalent of a popcorn blockbuster, the Christmas Oratorio was more of a prestige miniseries.
This fragmented premiere has caused Bach scholars to bicker about whether or not the Christmas Oratorio is actually a single, unified work at all. You can add to that the fact that much of the music in the Christmas Oratorio is recycled from earlier pieces by Bach, which doesn’t square well with our contemporary notions of what you do when you’re trying to make a Big Serious Masterpiece. It almost makes it seem like the guy was just doing his job, which in this case meant writing six pieces for six worship days.
But on the other hand, Bach did go out of his way to have the six cantatas printed together. Also, the oratorio is really satisfying, if a bit long-winded, when heard in its entirety. Music theorists have noted similarities in the oratorio’s opening chorus and its closing one, suggesting that it’s meant to be seen as a long arc that finishes by returning its audience to their familiar circumstances, having changed.
In any case, the beauty of this kind of overanalysis is that it’s completely optional. You may be quite wise indeed if you decide not to think about it too hard and just sit back and enjoy some of the most energizing music ever written.
Considering that it is now one of the most familiar and frequently heard pieces of music ever, The Nutcracker did not get off to an auspicious start. Even before Tchaikovsky was finished writing it, he regarded the entire project with a certain suspicion. The Nutcracker was meant to be performed in a double bill with his opera Iolanta, which Tchaikovsky wrote at the same time. But both pieces were set to premiere at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, which had just subjected Tchaikovsky to what he no doubt felt was a grievous personal injury.
His opera The Queen of Spades had been a tremendous hit with audiences at the Mariinsky in 1890, shortly before the commission for Nutcracker came his way. At the premiere, Tchaikovsky was apparently called to the stage to receive the audience’s applause after every single scene. But the opera didn’t meet with the approval of Emperor Alexander III, who arrived at a private performance to discover that the lead tenor had split his costume’s trousers. And while a replacement pair was found, the emperor was made to wait. Unacceptable.
In spite of this, The Queen of Spades filled the hall for weeks on end. But when the leading lady got pregnant, the Mariinsky’s administrators used it as an excuse to withdraw the royally panned opera a little bit early. Or, at least, that’s the way Tchaikovsky saw it. He may well have just been paranoid. In any case, it rattled him enough that he couldn’t bring himself to get down to work on The Nutcracker. He wrote, with typical petulance, to the theatre’s director: “I cannot, with the necessary calm, undertake a new work for that same theatre, on the boards of which my best and most beloved composition suffered so wretched and undeserved a fate.”
The director responded with flattery, which was exactly the right approach. Tchaikovsky got straight to work, but no quantity of complimentary letters would stop him from thinking that everything he wrote was bad: “colourless and dry, hasty and wretched…. I am experiencing a kind of crisis. I shall either emerge from it victorious and still, for a few more years, fill up sheets of music paper, or I shall lay down my arms.” This is dramatic, even by Tchaikovsky’s standards.
Affairs hadn’t improved by the time rehearsals started. The day before the premiere, the sets and costumes still weren’t done. And much to Tchaikovsky’s chagrin, the Mariinsky’s inferior ballet orchestra had been assigned to play the whole double bill, rather than the superior opera orchestra. Plus, there were some creative issues that were yet to be worked out: in the original production, Nutcracker’s first act had nearly no dancing, and its second had nearly no story.
Critics mostly savaged the premiere, for reasons not related so much to Tchaikovsky’s music as to everything else about the production. One wrote: “The production of ballets like The Nutcracker can quickly and easily lead the ballet troupe to its downfall.”
But in the early decades of the 20th century, years after Tchaikovsky’s death, a few adventurous choreographers decided to revisit this troubled old score — with the initial criticisms of the ballet explicitly in mind. In various ways, choreographers like Alexander Gorsky and Vasili Vainonen reversed the issues that The Nutcracker’s original critics had raised: the dodgy story, the lack of virtuoso dancing, the over-reliance on children onstage.
Slowly but surely, The Nutcracker’s cracked reputation was rehabilitated. In 1934, it received its first complete performance outside of Russia. And in 1940, Tchaikovsky’s melodies were finally made into the genuine pop-culture phenomenon that they remain to this day, when they were featured in one of the most memorable scenes in Disney’s Fantasia.
The story of The Nutcracker from that point on is a classic underdog rising narrative: the New York City Ballet started performing it annually around Christmas in 1954, and the rest of North America’s major ballet companies had followed suit within a decade. Today, in spite of its troubled origins and the fact that Tchaikovsky did not like it at all, The Nutcracker is probably the classical piece with the highest density of melodies that you cannot get out of your head at Christmastime.
Bach, Malcolm Boyd. Oxford University Press, 2000.
The True Life of J.S. Bach, Klaus Eiden, trans. Hoyt Rogers. Basic Books, 2001.
Tchaikovsky, Roland John Wiley. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Follow Matthew Parsons on Twitter: @MJRParsons