Published: February 17, 2010

The Nutcracker

One of the best-loved and most widely known ballets of our time, The Nutcracker, tells the story of a young girl’s enchanted Christmas Eve. German writer, illustrator, and composer E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) wrote the original story on which the ballet is based. Russian composer Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) set the tale to music in the early 1890s. Some ballet companies present The Nutcracker every year at Christmas time. In addition, Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite,” a shorter, orchestral work that summarizes the music presented at length in the ballet, appears on many Christmas concert programs.

Hoffmann would have been delighted to discover that his stories lived on to inspire the works of great composers. Hoffmann himself found tremendous inspiration in the works of Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), so much so that he changed his own middle name to Amadeus. Years after Hoffmann’s death, his life as a teller of tales fueled the musical imagination of French composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880). Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann spins a fantasy around the writer and a number of his works.
One of Hoffmann’s stories, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” (1819), intrigued French writer Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870). Dumas published a translated and freely adapted version of this story in French. Dumas’s “The Story of a Nutcracker” (1844) charmed the director of RUSSIA’s Imperial Ballet, who decided to commission a work based on the story. He hired the French choreographer Marius Petipa and his Russian colleague Lev Ivanov to choreograph the dancing. Petipa and Ivanov outlined the stage action needed to tell the story. Then they handed over a specific set of instructions to the composer who had been commissioned to write the music for the ballet. Luckily for future ballet lovers they selected Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who at that time was already considered a rising star among Russia’s composers.
Hoffmann’s complicated and somewhat frightening tale can hardly be recognized in today’s productions of The Nutcracker. Petipa and Ivanov presented The Nutcracker as a delightful children’s fantasy. The ballet companies that have performed The Nutcracker since then have adjusted the story here and there as well.

Basically, the tale unfolds as follows. The first act takes place at a Christmas Eve party in Nuremberg, GERMANY. Many guests and their children arrive at the home of the Stahlbaum family. While the adults decorate the CHRISTMAS TREE, the children play with toys. The mysterious Drosselmeyer arrives bringing GIFTS for his godchildren, Clara and Fritz Stahlbaum. Clara immediately falls in love with one of the toys, a wooden nutcracker. When the careless Fritz takes possession of the toy he breaks it, upsetting Clara greatly. The guests depart and the children are sent to bed.
Shortly thereafter, Clara comes back to the drawing room to visit her nutcracker. Clara finds herself reduced to the same size as the nutcracker and her brother’s toy soldiers. Dozens of mice come out of their holes and, led by their king, they attack the soldiers. The nutcracker rallies the toy soldiers against the mice. As the mouse king and the nutcracker fight one another, Clara throws her shoe at the mouse king, giving the nutcracker the chance to defeat him. The soldiers win, and the nutcracker turns into a prince. Out of gratitude for her help, the nutcracker prince takes Clara on a journey to the Kingdom of Sweets. They pass through a flurry of dancing snowflakes as they enter the magic kingdom.
In act two the citizens of the Kingdom of Sweets entertain Clara and the nutcracker prince. Exotic foodstuffs, such as Arabian coffee and Spanish hot chocolate, dance for them. Even flowers come to life and begin to waltz. Finally, the queen of this enchanted kingdom, the Sugarplum Fairy, dances with the nutcracker prince (see also SUGARPLUMS). Most versions of the ballet end with Clara returning to her own world, while in others she remains in the Kingdom of the Sweets.

Although Tchaikovsky accepted the job of producing the musical score for The Nutcracker, the task proved somewhat troublesome for him. He began working on the score in the winter of 1891. His personality and life circumstances may have contributed to the difficulty he experienced in composing the lighthearted music for the ballet. Extremely sensitive by nature, he often fell into periods of deep gloom. Several months before he began work on The Nutcracker, his close friend and patron, Mrs. Nadezhda von Meck, abruptly severed both their financial and personal relationships for no apparent reason. This abandonment plunged Tchaikovsky into depression and deeply shook his faith in human relationships. This recent event may explain why the composer found himself uninspired by the task of setting the sweet, simple fairy tale to music. Moreover, the rigid framework given him by the choreographers, which specified the character and exact length of many musical passages, restricted the degree of creativity he could bring to the work.
Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky labored away at the project until two great life events interrupted his progress. In March he left Russia for the United States, where he had been engaged to conduct the concert that was to open NEW YORK CITY’s new music hall, known today as Carnegie Hall. His journey to the United States took him through Paris, FRANCE. There he learned that his sister Alexandra had died. In a letter to his brother Modest, the composer confessed, “Today even more than yesterday I feel the absolute impossibility of portraying the ‘sugar-plum fairy’in music.”
After a successful sojourn in the United States his return trip to Russia again took him through France. There he bought a newly invented musical instrument called a celesta to take back with him to Russia. Tchaikovsky would introduce Russian audiences to its haunting xylophone-like tones in “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy,” one of the most famous passages from The Nutcracker. When Tchaikovsky arrived in Russia in June he once again took up his work on the score. In spite of all his efforts, he confided in a letter to a friend that he thought The Nutcracker music far inferior to the music he had composed for the ballet Sleeping Beauty.
Tchaikovsky’s estimation of the value of The Nutcracker music gradually increased. He decided to write an orchestral suite based on the ballet music. This time it took him only twelve days to complete the work. “The Nutcracker Suite” premiered in March of 1892, before the ballet had ever been performed. The audience loved the evocative melodies and requested several encores. Even today, “The Nutcracker Suite” stands as one of Tchaikovsky’s best-loved works.

The first performance of The Nutcracker ballet took place on December 17,1892, in St. Petersburg, Russia. The audience and critics react-ed without enthusiasm. Some writers point out that audiences of Tchaikovsky’s time were not used to the idea of ballets being performed to high-quality symphonic music. In fact, Tchaikovsky’s three great ballet scores — Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker —raised the standard for ballet music, and opened the door for other important composers to enter the field. Early audiences of The Nutcracker may also have disliked the fact that children occupy center stage for most of the first act, and that the serious dancing does not really begin until the second act. Luckily for Tchaikovsky, however, Tsar Alexander III of Russia liked the ballet. With the Tsar’s nod of approval, The Nutcracker became a standard work in the world of Russian ballet. Outside of Russia, however, the ballet remained unknown for many years.
At the height of his career, less than a year after the premiere of The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky was dead. In the fall of 1893 a Russian nobleman, who had discovered that his nephew had an affair with the composer, threatened to expose Tchaikovsky as a homosexual. Alarmed by this development, a number of Tchaikovsky’s associates and former college classmates met to decide the composer’s fate. This so-called “court of honor” ruled that Tchaikovsky should commit suicide in order to protect his, and, by extension, their reputations. Tchaikovsky had long feared the scandal and complete social shunning that would engulf him and his family if the public discovered his sexual orientation. When the great composer was found dead two days later, his associates circulated the story that he had died from cholera contracted from drinking a glass of unboiled water at a restaurant during an epidemic of the disease.

The first performance of The Nutcracker in the West took place in London in 1934. In 1944 the San Francisco Ballet became the first American company to present the ballet. In 1954 the New York City Ballet added the work to their repertoire. Since that time The Nutcracker has become a December favorite for many dance companies. The work naturally attached itself to the CHRISTMAS SEASON, since all the action in the story takes place on Christmas Eve. The story’s magical elements offer ballet companies the opportunity to entertain their audiences not only with wonderful music and dancing, but also with fabulous costumes and fantastic special effects. The razzle-dazzle appeals to children as well as adults. In fact, many parents bring children to see The Nutcracker as a special holiday treat. Due to its popularity with audiences, the ballet has become a relied-upon money-maker for many ballet companies. Box-office receipts from its performances must often finance a good portion of a company’s season.
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