The Magic of the Nutcracker
November 25, 2013 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
This time of year, music is everywhere. Festive occasions call for festive music, and one of this season’s perennial favorites is Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker. To give you a sense of how important this ballet is to performing groups, it was reported last year that the San Francisco ballet expected to make forty percent of their yearly ticket revenue from The Nutcracker alone. Forty percent! That’s a very high number for any single ballet, but I suppose it’s no wonder. For the last fifty years The Nutcracker has become a fun holiday tradition for families and the quintessential class trip destination in December. It’s perfect for the little ones (and even for bigger kids) because it has a simple story, it’s short—just 85 minutes—and it has a lot of familiar music.
It’s hard to imagine that The Nutcracker wasn’t always a grand success story. The critics were mostly underwhelmed by the ballet’s debut in 1892, calling it boring and amateurish. In an odd twist, however, audiences seemed to love the Nutcracker Suite, an eight-movement orchestral piece Tchaikovsky extracted from the larger work. It actually premiered nine months before the ballet, and has had a long and robust performance history, even when productions of the ballet were scarce.
The original source of the ballet’s scenario is E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. In addition to being a writer, Hoffmann was a composer and a music critic, famously writing one of the first important reviews of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The “A” in his name stands for “Amadeus,” a name he took to honor Mozart. (It replaced Wilhelm.) Hoffmann’s version of the Nutcracker, written in 1816, is both more convoluted than the one we’re used to seeing (with more backstory on how and why a prince was turned into a Nutcracker in the first place), and it is a bit darker and scarier than the version we know. In 1847 Alexandre Dumas, French author of The Three Musketeers, adapted Hoffmann’s Nutcracker story into a lighter tale, and it was this latter version that choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky chose to follow.
Petipa was immediately inspired by the story and had reportedly had given specific directions about the tempo and the length of each movement to the composer. Unfortunately, Petipa fell ill in August of 1892, and Lev Ivanov—Petipa’s assistant—took over, although it is difficult to say who did more work on the choreography. There is still some discussion about which one of them should be given full credit for the work.
Tchaikovsky’s ballet is in two acts. In the first—which takes place at a party on Christmas eve, a little girl named Clara receives a Nutcracker as a Christmas gift from her mysterious godfather, Drosselmeyer. Her brother breaks the toy, and Clara is devastated. Later that night, Clara gets up to visit her toy, but is instead surprised by huge mice that emerge from the floor, led by the seven-headed Mouse King. The Nutcracker, who suddenly comes to life, leads toy soldiers in a battle against the Mouse King. The Nutcracker gets into trouble and Clara ends up helping him by throwing her shoe at the Mouse King. Her quick thinking allows the Nutcracker Prince to be victorious, and he thanks her by taking her to the palace of the Sugar Plum Fairy. In the second act, the Nutcracker Prince tells of Clara’s bravery, and the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier host a celebration with sumptuous entertainment and dance. The hosts even get into the act, dancing a beautiful pas de deux that brings the celebration to a close. The ballet ends as everyone bids goodbye to Clara and she returns home.
In Hoffmann’s version, Clara’s day-to-day life is more arduous and Cinderella-like than Dumas’ well cared for (perhaps even a bit spoiled) child. In Hoffmann’s version, her escape into fairyland—which might be permanent—is a more crucial point. In Tchaikovsky’s ballet (and Dumas’ story), Clara’s visit to the palace of the Sugar Plum Fairy is just that: a pleasant jaunt from which she will happily return.
The complete ballet of The Nutcracker did not reach the U.S. until 1944; the San Francisco Ballet premiered the work in that year. The ballet reached the east cost a decade later with the premiere at the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine. In the U.S., the national yearly tradition really took off in the 1960s, and now many of us can hardly imagine December without it. With so many productions, though, ballet companies have wanted to put their own stamp on The Nutcracker. Tweaks in the story are not uncommon, and there have been numerous variations over the years, everything from the traditional 1892 period piece to popular versions set in modern day. There have also been further adaptations in animation, film, and television. In 2001, even Mattel’s Barbie appeared in The Nutcracker in a direct-to-DVD CGI version.
One of the most inventive and refreshing adaptations is the 1960 jazz-inspired version by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. This instrumental version became the basis for 1999’s The Harlem Nutcracker, a ballet with the Harlem Renaissance as its backdrop. One version I was fortunate enough to see live was the four-part guitar arrangement prepared by The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. Both the story and the music of The Nutcracker seem to endlessly inspire new versions, adaptations, tributes, and re-imaginings. For many children, it is the first ballet they see, the first classical music they hear—it may even be their first experience with live music of any kind. I saw it at the age of six, and that particular performance remains a vivid memory for me. These strong memories also guarantee the ballet’s continued success, as children continue grow up and have families of their own. Some of those grown-ups will want to pass along those joyful memories of the music, the costumes, the dancing, and the magic.
Tchaikovsky didn’t think much of the ballet at first, comparing it unfavorably—the words he used were “infinitely worse”—to his previous ballet Sleeping Beauty. And yet it’s probably his best-known stage work, and likely his most often performed piece. I’ve seen it a dozen times at least, and the magic never dims. It is as bright and exciting as a new toy, and luckily, it is the gift that keeps on giving.