The Nutcracker

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The Nutcracker
Nutcracker -Scene from Act I -Sergei Legat as Nutcracker, Stanislava Stanislavovna Belinskaya as Clara, & Unidentified as a Gingerbread Soldier -1892.jpg
Sergei Legat as The Nutcracker and Stanislava Belinskaya (right) as Clara, 1892
Choreographed by Marius Petipa
Lev Ivanov
Composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Libretto by Ivan Vsevolozhsky
Marius Petipa
Based on E. T. A. Hoffmann's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King"
Date of premiere 18 December 1892
Place of premiere Mariinsky Theatre
St. Petersburg
Original ballet company Mariinsky Ballet
Characters Clara
Drosselmeyer
Nutcracker Prince
Mouse King
Sugar Plum Fairy
Designs by M. I. Botcharov
K. M. Ivanov
Ivan Vsevolozhsky
Setting Act 1: Christmas Eve in 19th century Germany
Act 2: The Land of Sweets
Genre Fairy tale
Type Classical ballet

The Nutcracker is a ballet in two acts. It is about a little girl who goes to the Land of Sweets on Christmas Eve. It is based on E. T. A. Hoffmann's 1816 fairy tale "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King". Ivan Vsevolozhsky and Marius Petipa adapted Hoffmann's story for the ballet. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote the music. Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov designed the dances. The Nutcracker was first performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, on 18 December 1892. It was a modest success. Some people liked it, others did not.

About fifty years later, Walt Disney used some of the Nutcracker music in his 1940 movie Fantasia. People liked the movie and started to take an interest in the ballet. Interest grew when George Balanchine's The Nutcracker was televised in the late 1950s. The ballet has been performed in many different places since then. It is loved by many people. Tchaikovsky took some numbers from the ballet to form the Nutcracker Suite. This work was a great success on the concert stage, and is still played today.

Origin of the ballet[change | edit source]

The origin of The Nutcracker has its roots in the great success of The Sleeping Beauty ballet. This ballet was staged at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1890. It was the work of the director of the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg, Ivan Vsevolozhsky; the composer, Tchaikovsky; and the choreographer, Marius Petipa. Vsevolozsky thought another ballet based on a children's story would be equally successful.[1]

He picked E. T. A. Hoffmann's 1816 fairy tale "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" as the subject for the new ballet. This story was loved by Russians. He wrote an adaptation of Hoffmann's story, dropping much of the original. Petipa adapted Vsevolozsky's story to the requirements of ballet. Vsevolozsky then pressured Tchaikovsky into writing the music for the ballet. Tchaikovsky did not like the adaptation of Hoffmann's story, but he said he would write the music.[2]

Petipa designed the dances. He gave Tchaikovsky very special directions about how the music was to be written. For example, he wanted a great crescendo of 48 bars as the Christmas tree rose higher and higher in Act 1. He wrote that the music for the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" should sound like drops of water splashing in a fountain.[3]

In March 1892 the music was almost complete. Tchaikovsky took the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy", the "Waltz of the Flowers", and other numbers from the ballet to form the 20-minute Nutcracker Suite. It was first played for the Russian Musical Society. The organization's members loved it. Nutcracker Suite is still played today.[4]

Tchaikovsky completed the music for the ballet in April 1892. Rehearsals started in September 1892. Petipa fell ill and his assistant Lev Ivanov completed the dances.[5] The ballet was first performed on 18 December 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg,[6] with Tchaikovsky's one-act opera Iolanta. The run ended in January 1893 after eleven performances.[7]

Story of the ballet[change | edit source]

Petipa's Ballets
Petipa Head Shot 2.JPG

The ballet takes place in Germany in the early 19th century. The curtain rises on a Christmas Eve party in the Silberhaus home. The children get their presents then dance about the room. The door opens. A strange little man named Drosselmeyer comes into the room. He makes playthings. He is little Clara Silberhaus's godfather. He has four dancing dolls for the children and a special surprise for Clara. It is a nutcracker. She loves it, but her brother Fritz breaks it. She puts the Nutcracker in her doll bed to get well. The party ends and everyone goes home. Clara and her family go to bed. Clara creeps back to the room. She needs to be certain her Nutcracker is resting quietly. All of a sudden, mice start running about the room. The dolls, the tin soldiers, and all the other playthings come to life to fight the mice. The Christmas tree rises higher and higher. The Nutcracker jumps out of the doll bed to fight the Mouse King. When the Nutcracker is in danger, Clara saves his life by throwing her slipper at the Mouse King. The Mouse King runs out of the room with all the other mice. The Nutcracker becomes a human prince. Clara and the Nutcracker Prince set off through the snowy woods for the magical Land of Sweets. The beautiful Sugar Plum Fairy rules this land. She welcomes the two children then orders her subjects to dance for them. The ballet ends with everyone dancing a waltz.[8]

Characters in the ballet and their first players[change | edit source]

A little girl named Clara Silberhaus is the most important character in the ballet. In the original story by Hoffmann, she is called Marie. Her doll is named Clara. Marie is about seven years old in the Hoffmann story, but twelve year old Stanislava Belinskaya played the first Clara in the ballet. The next most important character is the Nutcracker. Seventeen year old Sergei Legat played the first Nutcracker in the fight with the Mouse King. Both children were pupils in the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet School. An important character in the ballet is Drosselmeyer. He is presented in the ballet as the one behind all the strange things that take place in The Nutcracker. Timofei Stukolkin played the first Drosselmeyer. Vasili Stukolkin played Clara's brother Fritz and the human Nutcracker Prince that takes Clara to the Land of Sweets. Antonietta Dell'Era was the first Sugar Plum Fairy and Pavel Gerdt was the first Prince Coqueluche. There is a character in the Sugar Plum Fairy's palace called the Majordomo. He is a servant who organizes the ceremonies and makes everyone feel welcome. Ivanov played the Majordomo and danced with a hoop on the first night.[6]

Structure[change | edit source]

  • Overture

Act I: Tableau 1

  • No.1 Scene (The Christmas Tree)
  • No.2 March
  • No.3 Children's Galop and Dance of the Parents
  • No.4 Dance Scene (Arrival of Drosselmeyer)
  • No.5 Scene and Grandfather Dance
  • No.6 Scene (Clara and the Nutcracker)
  • No.7 Scene (The Battle)

Act I: Tableau 2

  • No.8 Scene (A Pine Forest in Winter)
  • No.9 Waltz of the Snowflakes

Act II: Tableau 3

  • No.10 Scene (The Kingdom of Sweets)
  • No.11 Scene (Clara and Nutcracker Prince)
  • No.12 Divertissement:
a.Chocolate (Spanish Dance)
b.Coffee (Arabian Dance)
c.Tea (Chinese Dance)
d.Trepak (Russian Dance)
e.Dance of the Reed-Pipes
f. Mother Gigogne and the Clowns
  • No.13 Waltz of the Flowers
  • No.14 Pas de Deux (Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince Orgeat)
  • No.15 Final Waltz and Apotheosis

What people thought about the ballet[change | edit source]

Tchaikovsky's Ballets
Peter Tschaikowski.jpg

Swan Lake (1877)
The Sleeping Beauty (1890)
The Nutcracker (1892)

Criticism of the ballet was uneven. Some people liked it, others did not.[7] Russian balletomanes liked expert adult dancers and the large cast of children was attacked. One person complained that the ballet was "produced with children for children."[9] Even the adult dancers came under fire. One person, for example, thought the dancer playing the doll in Act 1 was "nice" while another person thought she was "insipid".[10]

One critic complained that the ballet was in bad taste because characters in Act 2 looked like food from a pastry shop. Another complained that Ivanov's "Waltz of the Snowflakes" was taken from ballets by Petipa.[11] Tchaikovsky however thought that the staging was very beautiful, so much so that his eyes grew tired looking at it.[12]

Some people were surprised that Tchaikovsky had anything to do with the ballet. They thought The Nutcracker was foolish. They were embarrassed that the great composer had had a hand in it.[13] On the first night however, Czar Alexander III called Tchaikovsky before him in the royal box to congratulate him on the music.[12]

The newspapers were divided on the ballet's value. The St. Petersburg Gazette wrote "this ballet is the most tedious thing ever seen ... a long way from what ballet music should be." The St. Petersburg News-sheet wrote, "It is hard to say which number is the greatest, for everything from start to finish is beautiful." The New Age wrote that Tchaikovsky's orchestral writing was the work of genius.[6] A ballet lover thought The Nutcracker was the greatest of the three ballets Tchaikovsky had written.[11]

After the first run[change | edit source]

The ballet's run ended in January 1893. About 20 years later, dancers left Russia when World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution broke out. They talked about the ballet with their new friends in the West, and some parts of the ballet were danced here and there in Europe. In 1940 Walt Disney used some of the music in his movie Fantasia. People liked the movie and started to take an interest in the real ballet.[14]

In 1954 George Balanchine staged The Nutcracker in New York City. People liked it. When it was aired on television in 1957 and 1958, the ballet became more famous than ever. Balanchine's television Nutcracker had enough fun in it for people who had not seen a ballet, and enough dancing in it to please the ballet lovers who watched it. In the 1960s small ballet companies started producing The Nutcracker because it could make a lot of money and, in doing so, keep the company in business.[14]

Modern times[change | edit source]

Today, The Nutcracker has been staged and seen by many people all over the world. Jennifer Fisher points out that it is "the most popular and most often [staged] ballet in the world."[15] In North America, it is a yearly event in many places. Parents and children take part in staging the ballet and dancing in it. Trained ballerinas dance side by side with children who are only learning to dance. Parents work on costumes and sets. Local celebrities take small walk-on parts.[16]

There have been many adaptations of the ballet over the years. In the United States, for example, there are hula, tap dance, reggae, wheelchair, dance-along, ice, and drag versions.[16] In Canada, there have been hockey adaptations.[17] Products such as Nutcracker dolls, soaps, foods, and clothing are sold in theatres before the show.[18]

Ballet lovers question the present day dumbing-down (oversimplification) of The Nutcracker to make it accessible to the masses. The reasons the ballet was originally disliked in Russia (the many child dancers, the uneven story) seem to be the reasons the ballet has become such a great success in North America. Americans like seeing their children on stage and the story is very much like the rags-to-riches stories Americans love.[18] Some people though complain about the stereotypes of children in Act 1 (boys are naughty, girls are nice) and also about the stereotypes of Arabians and the Chinese in Act 2.[19]

Music[change | edit source]

Musical instruments[change | edit source]

Mariinsky Theatre before 1917

Tchaikovsky wrote The Nutcracker for an orchestra of strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. To this orchestra he added a celesta for the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" in Act 2 and children's instruments—drums, trumpets, cymbals, bird calls, whistles, and a rattle—for the Christmas party in Act 1. The instruments were specially ordered and tuned to Tchaikovsky's orders. The rattle is heard in the orchestra pit when Fritz cracks nuts in Act 1, and the other instruments are heard when the boys make a lot of noise while Clara comforts the broken Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky hoped that the children would play the instruments on the stage, but they had difficulty keeping together with the orchestra. Because of the difficulty the children had, Tchaikovsky made the decision that they could play freely. He did not ask them to keep with the written music. After the first night, Tchaikovsky sent his thanks and baskets of sweets to the children of the Imperial Ballet School.[20]

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy[change | edit source]

The "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" is one of the most famous numbers in The Nutcracker. It was written for the celesta. This instrument was new at the time the dance was written. It looks like a small piano, but it sounds like bells. Tchaikovsky discovered the celesta in Paris in 1891 while making a journey to the United States. His publisher purchased one and promised to keep the purchase a secret. Tchaikovsky did not want Rimsky-Korsakov or Glazunov to "get wind of it and ... use it for unusual (different, strange) effects before me."[21][22] Petipa wanted the Sugar Plum Fairy's music to sound like drops of water splashing in a fountain. Tchaikovsky thought the celesta was the instrument to do this.[23] The original steps for the dance are unknown.[24] Antonietta Dell'Era was the first to dance the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy.[7][12] The character has very little dancing to do so Dell'Era put a gavotte by Alphonse Czibulka into the ballet. She then had something more to do.[25]

What music historians think[change | edit source]

The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier take their bows at the Royal Ballet

In his biography about Tchaikovsky John Warrack points out that the ballet's greatest weakness is its story. It did not permit Tchaikovsky to musically develop the ballet in the manner of Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty. What few symphonic passages exist in the ballet (mostly in Act 1) are not the best Tchaikovsky wrote. Warrack thinks that the "essential nature" of the ballet is found in the separate numbers. Tchaikovsky knew this when he put together the Nutcracker Suite to promote the complete ballet. Because the story was so weak and did not permit symphonic development, Tchaikovsky indulged his taste for "prettiness" in the separate numbers. This is what makes The Nutcracker, according to Warrack, an "entertainment of genius".[26]

In the biography Tchaikovsky, writer David Brown points out that Tchaikovsky was not happy with The Nutcracker and complained to his friends about the difficulty of setting the tale to music. Brown asks why Tchaikovsky would ever let himself be persuaded to accept the story as the subject for a ballet. He points out that Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty were "dramatically meaty and deeply serious" while The Nutcracker was "trite ... [and] pointless." The ballet has no true culmination he writes. He then asks, "What was it all about anyway? The Nutcracker is meaningless in the profoundest sense." He decides that the ballet is the "most inconsequential" of all the composer's mature works for theatre, and "its dramatic structure the least satisfactory." While Brown never gives his approval to The Nutcracker, he thinks Tchaikovsky did a remarkable job despite the "appalling limitations of the subject."[13]

Notes[change | edit source]

  1. Anderson 1979, p. 15
  2. Wiley 1985, pp. 193–94
  3. Anderson 1979, pp. 30, 34
  4. Anderson 1979, p. 39
  5. Warrack 1979, p. 58
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Warrack 1979, p. 59
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Brown 1991, p. 336
  8. Brown 1991, pp. 337–39
  9. Fisher 2003, p. 14
  10. Wiley 1985, p. 220
  11. 11.0 11.1 Wiley 1985, p. 221
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Anderson 1979, p. 51
  13. 13.0 13.1 Brown 1991, p. 339
  14. 14.0 14.1 Fisher 2007, pp. 248–51
  15. Fisher 2007, p. 246
  16. 16.0 16.1 Fisher 2007, pp. 106–07
  17. Fisher 2007, p. 250
  18. 18.0 18.1 Fisher 2007, p. 252
  19. Fisher 207, pp. 253–54
  20. Wiley 1985, pp. 230–31
  21. Brown 1991, p. 349
  22. Wiley 1985, pp. 228–29
  23. Anderson 1979, p. 38
  24. Wiley 1985, p. 219
  25. Wiley 1985, p. 204
  26. Warrack 1985, p. 60

References[change | edit source]

  • Anderson, Jack (1979), The Nutcracker Ballet, New York: Gallery Books, ISBN 0-8317-6487-2
  • Brown, David (1991), Tchaikovsky: the final years, 1885-1893, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., ISBN 978-0-393-33757-0
  • Fisher, Jennifer (2003), Nutcracker Nation: how an Old World ballet became a Christmas tradition in the New World, New Haven and New York: Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-10599-1
  • Fisher, Jennifer (2007), "The Nutcracker: a cultural icon", in Kant, Marion, The Cambridge Companion to Ballet, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-53986-9
  • Warrack, John (1979), Tchaikovsky Ballet Music, BBC Music Guides, Seattle: University of Washington Press, ISBN 0-295-95697-6
  • Wiley, Roland John (1985), Tchaikovsky's Ballets, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-816249-9

Further reading[change | edit source]

Other websites[change | edit source]

Media related to The Nutcracker at Wikimedia Commons