Christmas without The Nutcracker is almost like Christmas without Santa Claus. With the Yuletide season now on our doorstep, Les Grands Ballets once again celebrates this happy time of the year with its annual presentation of Tchaikovsky's immensely popular ballet. The Nutcracker has, through countless productions, captivated and enchanted millions of children and adults alike. For many of us, it was the first ballet we ever saw. For some, perhaps, it remains the only ballet. It has woven a magical spell in the collective consciousness of nearly the entire civilized world, and has taken on the proportions of something akin to a ritual at Christmas time. Yet, for all its popularity today, The Nutcracker had a very shaky beginning.
The commission to write the ballet came in 1891, at the height of Tchaikovsky’s fame and popularity. His Sleeping Beauty had had a big success the year before, and now the director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, wanted another ballet from Tchaikovsky, specifically one based on Alexandre Dumas père’s French adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale Nussknacker und Mausekōnig (The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King) ̶ hence, the oft-quoted French title Casse-noisette, even in Russia. Vsevolozhsky drew up the scenario himself. Tchaikovsky worked closely with the great choreographer Marius Petipa, whose instructions to the composer resembled the demands of film scores today, with their precise timings in the creation of moods and representation of events. This artistic partnership resulted in music of the highest quality, thoroughly inspired in its atmospherics, richly laced with memorable tunes, and imbued with colorful orchestration. Yet Tchaikovsky had surprisingly little sympathy for the subject, and he is on record as saying that he “liked the plot of The Nutcracker very little.”
Tchaikovsky worked on The Nutcracker during February and March of 1891, including throughout his travels in Western Europe. The first act was fully sketched before Tchaikovsky sailed to America in April. Nevertheless, the score was not finished until nearly a year later. On March 19, 1892, Tchaikovsky conducted a suite drawn from the complete score at an orchestral concert in St. Petersburg. The response was enthusiastic; five of the eight numbers had to be encored. Yet the premiere of the full-length production in December was not the success everyone had expected, more for reasons of casting and choreography than for musical content. Petipa, having become ill, had entrusted much of the choreography to a substitute ̶ and inferior ̶ creator, Lev Ivanov. The audience was not prepared for a host of children on stage instead of the traditional corps de ballet, and the Sugar Plum Fairy was hardly a vision of pristine beauty.
As most concertgoers know Hoffmann’s story only through Tchaikovsky’s ballet, it is worth noting that the latter departs from the original to a significant degree. Whereas the Vsevolozhsky/Petipa/Tchaikovsky collaboration resulted in a fairytale setting focusing on the joys of Christmastide and magical, idyllic settings, Hoffmann’s tale explored the darker, unsettling aspects of the soul. As biographer John Warrack explains, “On the face of it a children’s story, this is in fact a strange and complex fantasy in which, characteristically for Hoffmann, dreams and reality, a children’s tale and more alarming undertones, nursery narrative and obscure private jokes all mingle so that the reader has his stance constantly undermined. It is an attractive but uneasy and even disturbing story. … The figure of Drosselmeyer, half Hoffmann himself and half a weird caricature in the original, survives [in Tchaikovsky] as an eccentric uncle (Hoffmann had known many, and was himself one); the mouse battle loses most of its peculiarity; and the enigmatic figure of the Nutcracker itself, half inanimate object and half suffering soul in the original, is here an object of affection who returns it by rewarding his savior, Clara, with a visit to the Kingdom of Sweets.”
The sprightly, deftly scored Overture sets the mood for Christmas joy as perceived through the world of children. We are in the household of a prominent family. A huge, beautiful Christmas tree dominates the living room. The parents decorate the tree to a graceful theme in the violins. When the children burst onto the scene, the music becomes more restless and impetuous. To contain the children’s exuberance, a march is organized during which all parade around the room imitating soldiers. More dances follow: an effervescent galop for the children; a formal, dignified polonaise as more parents arrive; and another dance for the kids to the French nursery rhyme “Bon voyage, cher Dumollet.”
Suddenly a menacing figure appears in the doorway. This is Herr Drosselmeyer, a man as kind as he is strange-looking. He presents the children with fabulous toys, one of which is a nutcracker. The children seize upon it eagerly and, in their enthusiasm, manage to break it. Little Clara places the broken figure in her doll’s cradle and sings it a lullaby (interrupted by the boys' frantic march with toy trumpets). The scene ends with a general dance in a stately vein, the traditional “Grandfather Dance” based on an old German folk tune. The guests leave and the household retires for the night.
Clara cannot take her mind off the nutcracker, and steals back into the living room to check up on it. Strange phenomena are all about. The Christmas tree grows to enormous proportions before Clara’s very eyes. The toy dolls and soldiers come to life and, led by the nutcracker, engage in a pitched battle with an army of mice. The nutcracker is about to be overcome by the Mouse King when Clara hurls her slipper at the beast, killing it. The nutcracker thereupon turns into a handsome prince. In gratitude for saving his life, he invites her to join him in a journey to his magic kingdom. To some of Tchaikovsky's most inspired orchestral music, the room is transformed into a pine forest in winter. At the conclusion of their journey through the night in the snow-covered forest, Clara arrives at the Kingdom of Sweets, where she is treated first to a spectacular waltz of swirling snowflakes.
Act II takes place at the court of the Sugar Plum Fairy, ruler of the Kingdom. After ceremonial introductions all around, a grand divertissement (entertainment) is presented to the accompaniment of a lavish banquet in honor of Clara’s visit. Dances from strange and distant lands are seen in sequence (most of these are found in the well-known Suite), collectively offering a wide variety of contrasting styles, colors and moods:
Spain ̶ Chocolate is portrayed to a brilliant bolero (and virtuosic trumpet solos!).
Arabia ̶ A languid, sensuous theme in the clarinets unfolds over a rocking accompaniment figure. The sounds of muted violins waft gently upwards like summer breezes.
China ̶ Shrill flutes and piccolo contrast with the humorous “um-pah”-ing of bassoons.
Russia ̶ The trepak is the only native Russian element in the entire Nutcracker score. It begins with a furious energy that continues unabated through to the final bars.
Danse des mirlitons ̶ Reed pipes (mirlitons) are depicted by three flutes and English horn. Mirlitons are also a kind of crunchy pastry.
Mother Gigogne and her Polichinelles ̶ The music again suggests French folk tunes, this time to accompany the portrayal of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.
Then follows what is probably Tchaikovsky’s most famous waltz, the Waltz of the Flowers, which may well be the world’s second most popular after the Blue Danube. Tchaikovsky pays fitting tribute to Johann Strauss II, the “Waltz King,” in this graceful, elegant music that is as evocative as it is colorfully scored.
For many connoisseurs, the musical highlight of the entire ballet is the Pas de deux for Clara and her nutcracker Prince. (In some productions, the Sugar Plum Fairy dances instead of Clara). Petipa had asked that this number be “colossal in effect,” and Tchaikovsky obliged with some of his most rapturous music. An intense, falling theme in the cellos is heard against a background of harp arpeggios, and the music builds to ever more powerful climaxes with truly opulent orchestration. This love scene as imagined by the young Clara is followed by two brief solo numbers ̶ a tarantella for the Prince, and the famous Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, in which Tchaikovsky features the newly-invented celesta, a keyboard instrument resembling a small upright piano in appearance, but whose tone is more like that of a glockenspiel ̶ dry, crystal clear and delicate: a perfect accompaniment for the character depicted. The two soloists then join for an energetic closing number to their Pas de deux.
To a final waltz and an apotheosis of symphonic proportions, farewells are said all around as Clara prepares to leave the Magic Kingdom, her Christmas dream now about to end. But the memory of this event, we feel sure, will stay with Clara forever, just as Tchaikovsky’s music keeps eternally alive the spirit of fantasy we all harbor for the childlike wonder of life in never-never land, where impossible dreams come true.