Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

1 Comment

Free Live Webcast:  Tchaikovsky’s 5th, Stravinsky, and a New Work by Wynton Marsalis; or, Cossacks, Elephants, and a Hootenanny

On Friday, June 2, 2017 at 10:45AM EDT (GMT -5), the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will offer a free live online concert that will include a new work by Wynton Marsalis featuring violinist Nicola BenedettiHere is her official website.  Here’s the program:

Stravinsky: Circus Polka
Wynton Marsalis: Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5.

The circus polka was composed for a ballet choreographed by George Balanchine for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.  It was performed by fifty elephants and fifty ballerinas.  Balanchine said he phoned Stravinsky:1

“I wonder if you’d like to do a little ballet with me,” Balanchine said.
“For whom?”
“For some elephants.”
“How old?” Stravinsky asked.
“Very young,” Balanchine assured him.
There was a pause.  Then Stravinsky said gravely, “All right. If they are very young elephants, I will do it.”2

I have to hear this now.  By the way, the elephant ballet was only performed for a short time, after which it became popular among solely human dancers.

I’m also eager to hear Wynton Marsalis’s Violin Concerto.  From the reviews I’ve read, it is a thoroughly American concerto, with movements titled Rhapsody, Rondo, Blues, and Hootenanny.  Marsalis packs the work to overflowing with musical ideas and notions, and the work you hear on Friday may differ from previous performances—it seems to be a work in evolution.  A documentary has been created, The Making of a Concerto, which you can see at the link.  Here is the trailer.

Rounding out the program is Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, in which Tchaikovsky wrestles with the concept of fate.  And in the finale, the wrestling becomes fierce.  Check out this wild review from 1892, written by William Foster Apthorp, who was no great fan of “modern” music:8

In the Finale we have all the untamed fury of the Cossack, whetting itself for deeds of atrocity, against all the sterility of the Russian steppes.  The furious peroration sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker.  Pandemonium, delirium tremens, raving, and above all, noise worse confounded!9

Wow.  Elephants, a hootenanny, and pandemonium.  Don’t miss it!


  2. Krista, Davida. George Balanchine: American Ballet Master. Minneapolis: Lerner Publication, p 72.
  9. Boston Evening Transcript, October 24, 1892 via

Leave a comment

The Sugar Plum Fairy’s Celesta

‘Tis the season for Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, and one of the most well-known pieces from that work is the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

So how do you get that magical tinkling sound?  The celesta.

The celesta is a keyboard instrument that produces its sound through the striking of metal plates with little hammers connected to the keys, in the same way that pianos strike strings.

Here is a video from the Colorado Springs Philharmonic introducing the celesta.

If you are interested in a more in-depth treatment of the mechanics and the manufacturing of celestas, see this video from Schiedmayer Celesta GmbH.

Would you like to see The Nutcracker in its entirety?  You can!  EuroArts presents it on YouTube (with minimal commercial interruption).  You can find the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy at time stamp 1:29:00.  If you would like to see a purely orchestral version, you can see The Nutcracker performed by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (with the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy at 1:22:00).

But the celesta doesn’t go back in the storage room after the Christmas season!  It is used in a number of other works, namely Mahler’s Symphony No. 6Symphony No. 8, and Das Lied von der Erde, as well as several symphonies by Shostakovich.  A wonderful use of the celesta can be found in Gustav Holst’s The Planets in the mystical final movement Neptune.

It can also be found in Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite, and many operas.

Listen, and I think you’ll be surprised how often you’ll find the celesta adding that extra bit of magic to the music around you!


Haiku Wednesday: Tchaikovsky


The Nutcracker Suite
Is not the only thing that
Tchaikovsky composed.

Sure, the 1812;
But dig deeper and you’ll find
Lustrous, stunning gems.

Every Christmastime, the music of Tchaikovsky rings out again, as ballet dancers charm onlookers in the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies and other dance confections.

But there is more to Tchaikovsky than The Nutcracker.  Or the 1812 Overture (turn down your volume before clicking).  Or Swan Lake.

There is the wondrous Violin Concerto in D Major.  And then there are the late symphonies.

Symphonies 4-6 explore the concept of fate, and whether one masters it or yields to it. Tchaikovsky called fate “that tragic power which prevents the yearning for happiness from reaching its goal.”1  Wow.

In his Symphony No. 6, also called the Pathétique, Tchaikovsky breaks the mold of the symphony form.  His first and last movements are slow, which is unusual.  Also unconventional is that the waltz movement is not in standard 3/4 time, but 5/4, making it sound just a little off.  The third movement, the Scherzo, too seems to go a little awry.  In its final movement, the symphony does not end with a flourish, but rather, it fades away.  The symphony ends with repeated muffled bass notes, which then just stop.  To me, this sounds like the final beats of a heart.

Tchaikovsky died nine days after the premiere of the sixth symphony.

There are many fine recordings of the late symphonies.  Conductors whose names kept popping up in my reading were Mravinsky and Karajan.  Mravinsky’s interpretation is deemed intense; Karajan’s, a benchmark.  Other performances by Russian orchestras that I found interesting were conducted by Pletnev and Rostopovich.  Choose your favorite, and get ready for an unforgettable experience.

If you want to hear Tchaikovsky’s voice, fortunately, we have a small snippet.

If you want to read more about Tchaikovsky, here are two free books that are available online.  First, The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modeste. Second, Tchaikovsky by Edwin Evans, available free via Google Books or Internet Archive.  Also see the Tchaikovsky Research webpageIf you can read Russian, you can find a number of Tchaikovsky’s manuscripts here.


  1. Libbey, Ted. The NPR Guide To Building a Classical CD Collection. New York: Workman Press, 1994, p. 188, 189-192.
  2. Kozinn, Allan, The New York Times Essential Library: Classical Music. New York: Times Books, 2004, pp 147-150.


Image attribution: Photograph of Tchaikovsky [public domain] from book Tchaikovsky by Edwin Evans.  London:  J.M. Dent & Co., New York:E.P. Dutton & Co., 1906