SAN DIEGO — The Christmas season is over, more than two months gone now. Nobody’s thinking much about the “Nutcracker.”
John Stubbs is.
The longtime San Diego violinist and orchestra conductor discovered an error recently in the score for the beloved ballet, an engraving mistake in the original printing plates more than 100 years ago that altered in a subtle way how Tchaikovsky wanted one passage of the music played.
The composer wrote it for two flutes. The engraver gave him a flute and a piccolo.
“It added a bright color where Tchaikovsky didn’t mean to have a bright color,” Stubbs said.
Many people wouldn’t care or even notice. It’s like the difference between royal blue and navy, between milk chocolate and dark chocolate, between pinot noir and cabernet.
And it lasts for maybe five seconds, a blink of an eye in the sensory feast that is the “Nutcracker.”
But to the 68-year-old Stubbs, and to others of a like mind, it matters.
He’s been a violinist for more than 40 years with the San Diego Symphony and has led the orchestra for the California Ballet’s performances of “Nutcracker” for 25 years. Along the way, he’s adopted a philosophy that says when it comes to a piece of music, it should be played the way the composer created it.
“Especially for a work that has survived centuries,” he said. “Who am I to come along and put my own mark on it?”
This is a subject of debate in classical-music circles (as it is in many other art forms). Some hew painstakingly to the original compositions. Others add their own colors.
Stubbs feels strongly enough about it that he had a tattoo put on one arm about two years ago. It echoes Arturo Toscanini, a revered conductor who led the New York Philharmonic, appeared with orchestras around the world, and gained a nationwide radio following through the NBC Symphony Orchestra, which he directed from 1937 to 1954.
Toscanini had a saying he shared with his musicians, in Italian: “come e scritto.” That’s what Stubbs’ tattoo says.
“As it is written.”
His third ballet
In early 1891, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write music for a new ballet. It would be based on a children’s fairy tale about a girl and a toy nutcracker who comes to life on Christmas Eve.
The composer was already well-known for many works, including the “1812 Overture” and two other ballets, “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty.” He spent about a year on the new one, working while he sailed back and forth to America for a tour that included the opening of Carnegie Hall.
In March 1892, he debuted eight selections from the ballet in an orchestral suite. The full ballet premiered that December in St. Petersburg, in front of Emperor Alexander III and the imperial court, on a double-bill with “Iolanta,” a Tchaikovsky opera.
The response was mixed.
Some critics praised the music, but others panned the ballerina who danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. They dismissed the sets and costumes as garish. In a newspaper interview a month later, Tchaikovsky said, “Everything went off perfectly, but nevertheless it seemed to me that public did not like it. They were bored.”
Ten months later, Tchaikovsky was dead, at age 53. The official cause of death (much debated in the years since) was cholera.
“He went to his grave thinking ‘Nutcracker’ was mostly a failure,” said Betsy Schwarm, a Colorado-based music historian who has written about Tchaikovsky for Encyclopedia Britannica and is the author of nine books about classical music.
He was wrong, but it took some time for the ballet to find its legs — 42 years for its first full performance in London, and 52 before its U.S. premiere, in San Francisco.
Now, of course, it’s a holiday staple, a traditional part of the Christmas season for many families, and the single most-important revenue producer for many dance companies. There are dozens of performances annually in San Diego County — or were, until the novel coronavirus arrived last year and decimated live entertainment.
Stubbs was among those sidelined, but he put his down-time to use. In late 2019, while leading the orchestra for the California Ballet’s performances of “Nutcracker,” one of the musicians had asked him whether she was playing a particular passage in the correct octave. She’d played it lower elsewhere.
That sent Stubbs looking through archives for Tchaikovsky’s scores and notes. The octave, he found, was the right one. But something else was off.
Hiding in plain sight
In Tchaikovsky’s day, there were no computers, no software programs like “Finale” that enable composers to enter their musical notations and then send them off for publication as sheet music with the click of a mouse.
He wrote his pieces out longhand and took them to an engraver. The engraver etched the notations onto metal plates. The plates were inked, put into a press, and copies were printed on paper. That’s how his works got published and distributed. Orchestras playing the “Nutcracker” today use copies that date to those original plates.
When Stubbs examined the score more closely, he zeroed in on a passage in what’s known as the Chinese (or Tea) Dance, part of the second act, when the girl and the nutcracker-turned-prince visit the Land of Sweets.
In the score, there’s a section that has one flute playing a repeated ascending scale alone. That is followed by a section in which a flute and piccolo play a repeated descending scale together.
Then the first section is reprised, and this is where something seemed odd to Stubbs: In the first half, a flute and a piccolo play the ascending scale together. In the second half, two flutes play it.
“Why,” he wondered, “does the color change in the middle of the reprise?”
With the help of a symphony colleague, he found scanned images of Tchaikovsky’s original score on a Russian website, and they answered his question: The entire reprise section was supposed to be played by two flutes. No piccolo.
“It’s been hiding in plain sight for more than 100 years,” Stubbs said.
He suspects the engraver made the mistake while copying the score, and it didn’t get caught during proofreading. If Tchaikovsky noticed, there’s no indication of it in his correspondence around that time, according to Schwarm, the historian.
“When they were getting ready to stage the ballet for the first time, they were having problems with the choreography,” she said. “He might not have had a chance to look at the printing plates.”
Stubbs showed his discovery to scholars at the Tchaikovsky Research website, who confirmed his findings and asked him to write an article. It was recently posted on the site.
Schwarm said most people, unless they are listening for it, wouldn’t notice the change between what Tchaikovsky wanted and what wound up in the ballet score. “It’s a small difference,” she said. “The piccolo adds the brightness we are all used to. Two flutes would be more somber.”
Still, she added, “I do think there’s a lot to be said for playing it the way the composer heard it in his head.”
Stubbs agrees, and — COVID-19 willing — he plans to correct his arrangement for “Nutcracker” performances later this year. He said he’s shared his discovery with other conductors he knows, and he hopes they’ll make the change, too.
“It’s a very simple fix,” he said. “And then people can hear what Tchaikovsky intended.”