The Nutcracker: The Story Behind The Story
“Truly there would be a reason to go mad were it not for music.” ― Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The Nutcracker is a classic Christmas tale first adapted by Alexandre Dumas from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed the music for it and thus turned it into the world’s greatest Christmas ballet. Commissioned in 1891 by Ivan Vsevolozhsky, who was the director of Moscow’s Imperial Theatres, The Nutcracker premiered just before Christmas in 1892. The central plot is around a young girl and her Christmas eve celebrations where she comes across a magical realm and romance. Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a, however, did not achieve its ultimate fame until after the composer’s death.
The story begins somewhere in Germany during Christmas eve when godfather Drosselmeyer arrives with Christmas presents for his godchildren, Clara and Fritz. Clara, the heroine of the story, receives a nutcracker, a traditional doll believed to bring good luck, according to German legends. A jealous Fritz, who is Clara’s brother, breaks the doll much to Clara’s dismay. Godfather Drosselmeyer magically repairs the doll, and Clara falls asleep with it under the Christmas tree. This sets into motion the magical events of the ballet. Tchaikovsky himself didn’t think much of the music, considering it to be basic and unmoving, compared to his Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake. He also didn’t consider the story inspiring or likable. The premiere of the piece was, in fact, a failure, garnering much criticism. Nonetheless, there were a few who found the music praiseworthy.
When Tchaikovsky started working on The Nutcracker in 1891, he went to America to attend Carnegie Hall’s opening. On his return trip, he traveled through Paris, where he chanced upon the celesta. The musical instrument’s clear and sonorous tone was simply the perfect addition to The Nutcracker. Making up his mind, the composer intimated his publisher to acquire the instrument for the ballet’s performance.
The music in the ballet is extremely lighthearted and melodious, utilizing the high parts of the orchestra and clever combinations of woodwind instruments to create a doll-like fantasy sounding environment. The musical form of “The Nutcracker” is an ABA form, also called the ternary form. This means that the opening starts with an A-type, followed by the B type and then again by the A-type. The style of this music fits most with ballet. The musical period is romantic.
Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker’s premiere in Russia was in fact, a double premiere, the other being the composer’s final opera, Iolanta. This was about a week prior to Christmas, 1892. The location was the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. It is widely accepted that Lev Ivanov, Second Balletmaster and Marius Petipa, Premier Maître de Ballet, both members of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres, collaborated to bring this ballet to fruition. In Hoffmann’s original story, the heroine’s name is Marie instead of Clara while in the “Great Russian Nutcracker”, she is called Masha.
In the year 1934, the very first international premiere of The Nutcracker was staged in England. In 1940, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo first performed an abridged/shortened version of the ballet in the United States of America. This was followed by a full-length performance by the San Francisco Ballet in the USA in 1944. George Balanchine, a famous director, had his own vision of "The Nutcracker" and this proved to be the most accepted format of the piece among American dance companies. Balanchine’s take on The Nutcracker was first performed in the year 1954 in The New York City Ballet where it became a hit.
The summary of two acts in the piece:
The story opens into the Stahlbaum’s house on Christmas eve. The audience is treated to a decorated scene, complete with wreaths, stockings, etc., along with a traditional and beautiful Christmas tree. Holiday preparations are underway while Clara and Fritz, await the arrival of their guests. The arrival of Drosselmeyer, the children's godfather, initially frightens Fritz but Clara recognizes him. A toymaker, Drosselmeyer is welcomed and the merriment continues by the children.
Drosselmeyer eventually distributes his gifts among the children with china dolls and bugles among girls and boys, respectively. For his godchildren, he gifts Fritz a drum, and Clara a nutcracker doll. Jealousy grabs Fritz, culminating in him breaking the doll. To console Clara, Drosselmeyer magically fixes the nutcracker doll. As it gets late, the children become sleepy and the guests, thanking the Stahlbaum family, leave. While Clara’s family retires for the night, she checks on the nutcracker to make sure it’s alright and subsequently falls asleep with it under the Christmas tree.
The midnight chime awakens Clara to a fantastic scene where she finds herself shrinking. She beholds an army of mice led by the Mouse King facing off against the toys, now alive, led by the Nutcracker. The battle results in the Mouse King cornering the Nutcracker. As the toys are about to be defeated, Clara stuns the Mouse King by throwing a slipper and hitting him. This allows the Nutcracker the opportunity to defeat the stunned villain and gain victory. As the mice carry away their king, Clara falls on the Nutcracker’s bed, exhausted. Thereafter, amid music, the bed transforms magically into a sleigh and the Nutcracker turns into a prince.
Clara’s magical travel aboard the sleigh leads her and the Nutcracker to the Land of Sweets. The audience, through her eyes, see ladyfinger mountains covered with whipped cream and buttercream frosting all around. Upon their arrival, they are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Sugar Plum Fairy is extremely impressed with Clara and the Nutcracker’s combined courage and charisma. To honor them, a great and wonderful festival is held inside the Candy Castle. After the two are respected like royalty and treated to sweets, the dance commences.
The Women of Coffee to the Mandarin tea, all participate and dance to the occasion. Clara further experiences Mother Ginger, perform the Mirliton dance, which she finds amusing. Next, we see the dancing flowers waltz to the harp’s tune, which Clara and the Nutcracker Prince find very beautiful. After the dance, the handsome Cavalier appears and leads the Sugar Plum Fairy to the center of the room, where they dance. Dancing gracefully enough to appear to not touch the ground, this dance concludes the festival wonderfully. After Clara and the Nutcracker say goodbye to everyone at the festival, she declares that she wouldn’t want the adventure to end where the Nutcracker prince assures her that it won’t if she keeps believing. The next morning, Clara awakens from her dream to find that the Nutcracker was still in her arms.
The Nutcracker, for all intents and purposes, is one of the most famous and traditional ballets around the world, especially in North America. Since the time of its creation by Tchaikovsky to its numerous stage adaptations, it has gripped audiences worldwide for its magnificent music and charming characters. A true Christmas heritage of the 20th century and for many more decades to come, Christmas celebrations today are incomplete without The Nutcracker in some capacity. As such, it deserves the name it has garnered for itself and will remain a classic for ages to come.
If you like to learn more about Pyotr Tchaikovsky who composed The Nutcracker please visit our "About Pyotr Tchaikovsky" page.
- About The Nutcracker Act 1 on ThoughtCo
- About The Nutcracker Ballet on Favorite Classical Composers
- About the history of The Nutcracker on nutcracker.com
- About The Nutcracker ballet on ESOL Courses
- About The Nutcracker on Britannica
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