I’m currently reading A Gentleman in Moscow, and just read this passage where the main character, Count Rostov, declaims the importance of Tchaicovsky’s Nutcracker ballet.
In the scene, Rostove accepts a challenge by a two travelers–a German and a Brit–to list at least three different Russian artistic/cultural achievements that have contributed significantly to western civilization. The Brit has been arguing with the German about the merits of Russian culture, but the German is skeptical, arguing that the best thing Russia has produced is vodka. Count Rostov, having overheard the conversation, can’t help himself and defends his country. Before doing so, the three characters agree to take a shot of vodka for each example the Count successfully defends.
“Number two?” asked the Brit, as Audrius refilled the glasses.
“Act one, scene one of The Nutcracker.”
“Tchaikovsky!” the German guffawed.
“You laugh, mein Herr. And yet, I would wager a thousand crowns that you can picture it yourself. On Christmas Eve, having celebrated with family and friends in a room dressed with garlands, Clara sleeps soundly on the floor with her magnificent new toy. But at the stroke of midnight, with the one-eyed Drosselmeyer perched on the grandfather clock like an owl, the Christmas tree begins to grow. . . .”
As the Count raised his hands slowly over the bar to suggest the growth of the tree, the Brit began to whistle the famous march from the opening act.
“Yes, exactly,” said the Count to the Brit. “It is commonly said that the English know how to celebrate Advent best. But with all due respect, to witness the essence of winter cheer one must venture farther north than London. One must venture above the fiftieth parallel to where the course of the sun is its most elliptical and the force of the wind its most unforgiving. Dark, cold, and snowbound, Russia has the sort of climate in which the spirit of Christmas burns brightest. And that is why Tchaikovsky seems to have capture the sound of it better than anyone else. I tell you that not only will every European child of the twentieth century know the melodies of The Nutcracker, they will imagine their Christmas just as it is depicted in the ballet; and on the Christmas Eves of their dotage, Tchaikovsky’s tree will grow from the floor of their memories until they are gazing up in wonder once again.”
The Brit gave a sentimental laugh and emptied his glass.
“The story was written by a Prussian,” said the German, as he begrudgingly lifted his drink.
“I grant you that,” conceded the Count. “And but for Tchaikovsky, it would have remained in Prussia.”
During the first few years of marriage, my wife and I would attend a production of The Nutcracker every Christmas. We haven’t been able to attend for the past several years for various reasons, and this passage suddenly made me very nostalgic. Unfortunately, it looks like we’ll miss again this year.
I couldn’t find a recorded version of the Christmas tree scene, but this performance of the pas de deux right afterwards will do:
The passage from A Gentleman in Moscow and the nostalgia served as inspiration for my December poem today:
From floor to ceiling, see the Christmas tree
Expand and grow. The white glow of the light
Intensifies like starlight ’til we see
Reality become a dream tonight.