Tchaikovsky's Waltz of the Flowers is a famous piece from The Nutcracker, one of this composer’s most important and well-loved masterpieces.
This ballet in two acts was performed for the first time on December 1892, at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Many great musicians and scholars such as Olga Maynard and Biegel Jeffrey assert that The Nutcracker's greatest piece is the Waltz of the Flowers.
Additionally, the three major harp cadenzas composed by Tchaikovsky for The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty ballets are often performed in symphonic concerts and appear on the repertoire list for nearly every orchestral audition.
However, there is a very peculiar aspect of this piece that I would like to underline: not many people know that when they listen to this famous cadenza, they are not listening to the composer’s original notation, but to one of its internationally recognized variations.
The question is: when was the original harp part changed, and why?
According to Sara Cutler's explanation in her article published in the American Harp Journal in June 2019, these solos are played differently to the notation by professional harpists because their original versions are either unplayable or idiomatically ineffective.
In other words, because of organological reasons, the performances based on Tchaikovsky's harp notations create a different effect from the one that the composer probably had in mind.
The Nutcracker harp cadenza is a superb example in this regard and has a special place among pieces that are played differently to the notation, according to tradition.
While examining this cadenza, some questions came into my mind.
First of all: why did Tchaikovsky create a harp cadenza to introduce his Waltz?
According to David Huckvale’s studies, one reason might be that in romantic pieces the ‘preparatory’ function is often associated with the harp, presumably due to the instrument’s bardic associations (the harp introduction to "Dir töne Lob" in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, for example). In fact, during Romanticism there was an increased interest in bardic culture, in which bards sang their poems with a harp accompaniment, as well as being in charge of preparing the background before their recitals.
Moreover, Tchaikovsky loved the harp, as proved by his operas and ballets such as the world renowned cadenza from Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty.
Indeed, he loved the flowing sounds of the harp: this is why he skillfully used them to create a unique atmosphere, stirring the listener's imagination.
Furthermore, Tchaikovsky also highly appreciated the German virtuoso Albert Zabel, who was appointed principal harpist at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg from 1855 onwards, and harp teacher at the Conservatory in 1879. Zabel was to be the harpist who performed this cadenza at the premiere with the composer conducting.
However, as stated before, there is this a problematic peculiarity in the way Tchaikovsky composed for harp: fast, contrary motion gestures and grand simultaneous two-handed arpeggios, written in intervals, abound in Tchaikovsky's harp excerpts.
Why? One possibility could be that Tchaikovsky knew he could rely on the talents of the harpist who first performed them, the said Albert Zabel, to vary the originals and create something from them that would be idiomatic and also in harmony with the composer’s intent.
Samuel Adler, an important composer and conductor, tells us the story behind the tradition of the first performance of this piece: the story goes that Zabel actually suggested a revised performance style to Tchaikovsky.
In the original score both hands are played towards each other simultaneously in semiquavers, but thanks to this agreement Zabel was able to change the contrary, simultaneous arpeggiated chords to descending flowing arpeggios. From that moment on, even with little variations, this is the way professional harpists have played it. Tchaikovsky accepted Zabel’s version, but never changed the score.
Whatever the reasons for leaving this cadenza in a somewhat unfinished state, it is understood by performers that certain adaptations are necessary and that some of these adaptations might even be dictated by the needs of the ballet company involved.
As shown in orchestral studies, there are several other ways of performing the piece, created by different composers such as Renié, Adler, Zingel, Konhäuser and Storck, Dulova and Bullen. These examples show that there is a tradition of changing the part, but there are different versions of executing it.
Not all composers appreciate discussing their work. However in my opinion, in this particular case, personal contact between interpreter and composer enriched this masterpiece and was essential for a quality outcome of all the parts.
Thanks to Tchaikovsky and Zabel, we now have the freedom to perform this cadenza in a more effective way than the one written by the composer, which truly enhances the introduction of the unforgettable Waltz of the Flowers and the harp’s wonderful potential!
Published on: associazioneitalianarpa.it
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