Essay on 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy' Analysis

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I started listening to “Let’s Go Away for Awhile” (1966) on YouTube after it appeared in the movie Baby Driver, which became my favorite track. While listening to it, I remembered the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” (1892) from The Nutcracker ballet I watched as a kid on Christmas and YouTube. The pieces are from different musical eras, 74 years apart. The first one is from the Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds during a period where mutual inspiration between the Beatles and the Beach Boys led to “a shift toward using the recording studio as an instrument in and of itself” (Carollo), creating 1960s pop. The latter was from the late Romantic period which started to incorporate more lyrical melodies and emotions. Both introduce the melody with a pitched percussion instrument, which makes these two unique as it is not common to do so. Along with this, I am going to investigate what other similar and different traits also make the pieces unique.

The first similarity I noticed is that the main melody or recurring theme of both is introduced first by a pitched percussion instrument.

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This similarity is what made me write this investigative post. The famous recurring melody audiences think of when mentioning the Sugar Plum Fairy is introduced by the celesta, a pitched percussion, in bar 5 of Figure 1.

The melody that brings peace to the audience in “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” starts at the beginning of Figure 2 by the vibraphone. The score used is a transposed version for the piano and guitar. Starting the melody with a pitched percussion is not common, making both pieces unique and interesting.

Another similarity is that both received outside artistic influences. “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is program music, music from the Romantic period inspired by other types of artwork that employs a lot of emotion and dramatic effects. Tchaikovsky's composition of The Nutcracker Suite was based on Alexandre Duma’s version of The Nutcracker story published in 1884. Duma’s was a children-appropriate remade version of E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (Balanchine). Tchaikovsky’s piece was based on one of the newly added sweets characters created by Duma: the Sugar Plum Fairy who reigns as queen of the Land of Sweets. As the fairy is “the embodiment of sugar sweet and all that is delectable”, Tchaikovsky wrote used a celesta, which it's high register and glassy timbre highlight the fairy’s main traits (Hellwig).

“Let’s Go Away For Awhile” also had a lot of artistic influences according to Brian Wilson. His inspiration brings the color of the track and allows the listeners to have a short rest in the album containing sad-themed tracks. Wilson explained that the chord progression may be in a similar form to Burt Bacharach’s subconsciously (Wilson). Additionally, the early working title, 'Let's Go Away for Awhile (And Then We'll Have World Peace)', shows Wilson’s inspiration from the comedy album How to Speak Hip (1959) by Del Close and John Brent (Linnet). Tony Asher, co-writer of the album, said that Wilson picked up a reference from the album about “if everyone were 'laid back and cool, then we'd have world peace’” (Linnet). This reference shows Wilson wanted this track to relax and bring peace to people, through the artistic influences he received.

The last similarity is the use of accidentals for aesthetic purposes. Tchaikovsky achieved an aesthetic depiction of the Sugar Plum Fairy and its dance from the ballet through a compositional technique called chromaticism. He used chromaticism in other characteristic pieces, like the piece “March” which describes the marching of the toy soldiers in The Nutcracker.

Tchaikovsky adds accidentals such as a D#, C#, G#, and A# along with their naturals in Figure 3 bars 1-7, which is in E minor. The D# appears in the strong beat and it is later in its natural at the next strong beat in bar 6 of the celesta. The same pattern can be seen with the G# in bar 6 violin I, and the A# in bar 7. The pattern can also be seen in the pizzicato, string plucking, of Violini II, and the viole. Bars 2 and 4 of the violin II show C# used in the upbeat and C natural used in the next upbeat. The same happens in the viole with the G#. These subtle changes in notes allow the ballerina to highlight the queen as the accidentals bring out the elegance and delicacy the ballerina is portraying through a pas de bourée court in sixth position, tendu devant in pilé, and relevé (Brandt).

Chromaticism is again present in Figure 4 with the same trend in the Celesta’s 16th note scales with several triplets. The scalic passages soften the port de bras of the ballerina and convey elegance and delicacy while going on tiptoes (Brandt). Because of several highlighted dance moves, characterization of the elegant character can be achieved, which also builds the elegant aesthetic of the piece and character. Overall, with accidentals, Tchaikovsky enforces the wanted aesthetic for a character in a musical piece.

“Let’s Go Away For Awhile” used accidentals while switching between keys to construct parallel harmony. Parallel harmony is when chords of the same intervallic structure rise or fall by the same intervals in the upcoming chords. Such harmony brings the drifting and peaceful aesthetic Brian Wilson wanted.

The chords in Figure 5 bars 1-6 indicate a parallel harmony. The accidentals every two bars add to the drifting, relaxing, and peaceful aesthetic Wilson incorporates in the piece. In bars 1-2, C and E have an interval of a major 3rd. Wilson keeps the major 3rd interval in bar 3 using D and F# and in bar 4 using Eb and G. The interval leap of a perfect fourth which starts in bar 1 from G to C is also followed in bars 3, 4, and 5. Bar 3 uses A and D while bars 4 and 5 use Bb and Eb. The accidentals keep the same intervals throughout the melody of the vibraphone, conjunction melody line transitions in a flowy movement.

Even though there are various similarities between the two pieces, there are still differences noticed.

First, there is a difference in the important family of instruments both pieces use except for the pitched percussions. “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” has a large amount of instruments from the strings and woodwinds family group. The strings family includes violins, violas, cellos, and contrabasses. The woodwinds include flutes, oboes, English horns, clarinets, and bassoons. The only instrument outside of these two families is the French horn, which is in the brass family. “Let’s Go Away For Awhile”, on the other hand, has a greater focus on brass and strings rather than woodwinds. Because of this difference in instruments used, there is a difference in timbre.

This first difference leads to the second: timbre. “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” has a glassy and resonant timbre which conveys the fairy-tale ambiance. The timbre comes from the instruments, techniques, and styles used.

The celesta is a struck idiophone invented in 1886 by Auguste Muste, uses metal plates that resemble those of a glockenspiel, and has a high, delicate, bell-like sound (Plumley). It also has a register of C4 to C8. This instrument was chosen because Tchaikovsky thought it was the best to describe the Sugar Plum Fairy’s character and grace in her movements.

The celesta’s dotted 8th and 16th note rhythms bring the glassy timbre, especially in Figure 6 bars 5-7. The violins also build up timbre before the celesta enters through using pizzicato in their 8th notes.

The resonant timbre can be heard from the section with the orchestra along with the celesta’s solo melody in Figure 7 bars 21-32. The 16th note melodic passage with leaps of the celesta, the predominant 8th note tied ascending and descending scale of the clarinet, and the use of the arc in Bs of different octaves by all string instruments: violin I and II, viola, celli, and contrabass.

The resonant timbre is also in Figure 9 bars 49-51 in the slur between two different notes by the flutes, oboes, and English horn. The clarinet’s smooth one-beat 16th note downward scale after each resonating note allows a connection to the next resonating note, creating the same resonating timbre. The English horn and clarinets play the same pattern earlier in Figure 8 bars 17-19 while the fagottos follow the same pattern with an 8th note at the end instead of a 16th note.

“Let’s Go Away For Awhile” also has a magical mood with different timbres. The timbre of this piece is rounded, brassy, stringy, and mellow. The rounded timbre is mainly from the melody played by the vibraphone at the beginning. The resonance of each note which is in the middle register, above C3, brings out the rounded timbre. The 8th note motif in Figure 10 bars 1-6 with leaping intervals of a perfect fourth and a major 6th also adds to the rounded timbre. The vibraphone itself also produces a sound that resonates, further adding to the rounded timbre. The vibraphone’s smooth harmonic transition through parallel harmony brings a rounded and mellow timbre. The brassy and stringy timbre is prominently heard after the piece shifts in meter to 6/8 and when the brass and string ensemble join together. The whole notes in the middle register played by the brass and string instruments enhance the certain characteristic sounds both instruments have, again conveying the brassy and stringy timbre. The mellow timbre is heard throughout the whole piece, but prominently in the vibraphone solo sections and the section of the guitar strumming with a saxophone. The tweak in the guitar, which made it sound semi-steel, produced an effect that highlights the mellow timbre the overall piece has (Wilson). Overall, the different timbres are essential for Tchaikovsky and Wilson to further characterize the pieces they wrote.

Lastly, the meter and tempo of the two pieces are different. “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” uses a quadruple meter of 4/4 which later shifts to 6/8, a compound duple time. The piece has a tempo consisting of 88 beats per minute. Meanwhile, “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” uses the meter of 2/4, a duple time, at andante nontroppo, slow but not too much. These two differences are connected to the difference in timbre. In the Beach Boys’ piece, the change in meter occurs when the vibraphone has a solo followed by the brass and string ensemble and the strumming of the guitar. All of these add to the rounded, brassy timbre the piece has which conveys the drifting mood. In “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, the constant duple meter keeps a steady beat which highlights the piercing timbre played by the pizzicato strings at the up-beat along with the various accented notes in the strong beat and the staccatos of the celesta. The constant meter allows the dancer, who has to express a specific character, to dance at a set rhythm and focus on expressing the character. As seen, even though the difference in meter and tempo is subtle, it is enough to affect the timbre of the piece and to highlight certain traits of the piece.

“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” are from totally different eras, but even with this time difference which affects the musical style and the piece, several links can still be tied. I might later do another blog post like this with two other pieces, and I may receive recommendations for it so leave suggestions in the comments below!

Bibliography

    1. Balanchine, George. “George Balanchine's The Nutcracker® Program Notes.” PA Ballet, PA Ballet, paballet.org/nutcracker-program-notes/.
    2. Brandt, Amy. “Visions-and Variations-of Sugar Plum.” Pointe, Pointe, 26 Nov. 2018, www.pointemagazine.com/sugar-plum-fairy-tips-2412810998.html.
    3. Carollo, Lily. “The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds Came out 50 Years Ago. It Still Feels Fresh Today.” Vox.com, Vox Media, 16 May 2016, www.vox.com/2016/5/16/11675942/pet-sounds-beach-boys-50th-anniversary.
    4. Hellwig, Rachel. “Sugar Plum Fairy Exposé: Dissolving The Sugar Coating.” Dance Advantage, Dance Advantage, 21 Dec. 2015, www.danceadvantage.net/sugarplum-fairy-exposed/.
    5. Linett, Mark (2001). 'Track-by-Track Notes'. In Pet Sounds (p. 19) [CD booklet]. Hollywood: Capitol Records, Inc.
    6. Plumley, Gavin. “A Spoonful of Sugar: Tchaikovsky's Use of the Celesta in The Nutcracker - Royal Opera House.” Royal Opera House, Royal Opera House Covent Garden Foundation, 2013, www.roh.org.uk/news/a-spoonful-of-sugar-tchaikovskys-use-of-the-celesta-in-the-nutcracker.
    7. Wilson, Brian.(1966) Album Notes for Pet Sounds from the Beach Boys, [booklet]. Hollywood, CA: Capitol Records.
    8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ow4t3C_gCCY (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy)
    9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEoKf52h9ok (“Let’s Go Away For Awhile”)

 

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