did you know Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker...


- was originally based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”? Published in 1816, Hoffmann’s story takes place over several days, with a much darker story, involving Marie (aka. Clara in the ballet) breaking her arm and getting blackmailed by the King of the Mice as well as selfish princesses, astrologers, a backstory into why the prince is trapped in the Nutcracker’s body. Why is none of this in the ballet? Alexander Dumas (author of Count of Monte Cristo/Three Musketeers) published a watered down version of Hoffmann’s tale in 1844, which was further diluted in the ballet to make the story easier to tell with no words.

-was Tchaikovsky’s least favorite of his ballets? The main choreographer (Marius Petipa) gave Tchaikovsky super detailed instructions for each dance (i.e. tempo and number of bars) and he resented having to compose under such circumstances, almost abandoning work on the ballet all together. Ironically, it is hailed for its surprisingly advanced harmonies and melodic invention that many feel is unsurpassed in ballet music…and has not only become one of the most popular ballets in history but also one of his most popular compositions. Speaking of which…

-was not a success when it premiered in 1892? Many people hated how the story wasn’t faithful to the Hoffman tale, the dancing was “sub-par” (though some dancers were referred to by critics as being “completely insipid”, “corpulent”, “pudgy” and “amateurish”) and that the story was lopsided. The Suite from the Nutcracker Tchaikovsky arranged however became instantly popular and carried all the attention until Balanchine’s very successful staging in New York City during 1954. Now, the complete ballet is staged all over the United States and across Europe every year.

-it is Clara’s act of protecting the Nutcracker from the mouse-king that returns him to human form? In the original story Marie (Clara’s basis) only transformed the Nutcracker after she promised if he was a real person she would love him no matter what he looked like. This is because in the original story, Nutcracker form (large head, wide smile and cottony beard) was considered ugly and a result of a curse which caused the Princess he had freed from the curse to reject him (talk about shallow…he had saved her, after all). As a matter of fact, Tchaikovsky’s ballet does not in any way suggest that Clara and the Prince are in love or get married…just that they become the rulers of Confiturembourg (i.e. Russian Candyland sans Plumpy or Molasses Swamp from the highly popular board game).

- has a song that was rumored to be written on a bet? While most familiar with the Suite believe the Waltz of the Flowers is the finale of the Nutcracker, there are actually two more important sections afterwards, the Pas de deux (a duet dance that includes the Dance of the Sugar Plum fairies) and the actual finale. According to the story, Tchaikovsky was bet that he couldn’t write a melody based on the notes of an octave scale in order. The Pas de deux opens with an Adagio section in which he does just this. Also, according to the story, the recent death of Tchaikovsky’s sister influenced it, resulting in the mournful, descending scale melody that alternates between major and minor.

Pas de deux : Intrada

- is the composition that made the celesta famous? Known as the magical sound in the Dance of the Sugar Plum fairies, Tchaikovsky first heard the celesta while visiting France and immediately set out to use it. He incorporated it into the tone poem “Voyevoda” which he wanted to premiere the instrument in, but on opening night is said to have hated the work so much he ordered the music to be burned by the time of intermission. Still wanting to not be “scooped” and have his “celesta thunder” stolen by either Rimsky-Korsokov or Glazunov, he created the “Nutcracker Suite”, which premiered 9 months before the ballet…which is famous today. The celesta is also used in another dance of act II of the ballet. Can you figure out which one?

-has been heard in a variety of non-holiday places? Surely you know it from holiday commercials and holiday specials…but it has also appeared in video games. In the original Lemmings, you can hear the “Dance of the Reed Pipes.” In Yoshi’s Story, you can hear a variation of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies in Baby Bowser’s castle. For the most interesting juxtaposition, look no farther than Bioshock.

When killing off Sander Cohen’s ex-disciples and placing their photographs on the Shrine in Fort Frolic, Sander unleashes a small army of splicers on you while playing “Waltz of the Flowers” in the background. Having played the game myself, I can attest to it being “quite the unexpected experience.”

-is HATED by dance critic Sarah Kaufman, who blames the Nutcracker’s sheer domination of the ballet scene since its premiere for severely limiting the creative evolution of ballet in the US? In 2009 she went on the offensive and published a series of stories in the Washington Post in which she refers to the Nutcracker as the ballet equivalent of “meatloaf” since many of the productions never stray far from its artistic roots. It has a strangle hold on every dance company because it is one of the few that can turn quite a successful profit and fund the rest of their artistic year. Basically, if you don’t perform the Nutcracker in the winter for the massive profit, you have no money to do anything else…which even i can understand makes it more of a chore for most artists than a joy.

Anyway, keep these things in mind as you hear snippets of it this holiday season. I do encourage you to hear the whole thing…hearing just the Suite for a month is like an “all-sugarplum” diet, eventually you’re bound to want to vomit. If you want a good recording of the complete ballet, i highly reccomend Semyon Bychkov and the Berlin Phil’s recording with Phillips. The strings are very crisp and clean…with just the right amount of starry-eyed childhood dreaminess when its needed. You might be surprised at how catchy the melodies are in the rest of the work if you’ve never heard it. I am particularly fond of “The Christmas Tree”, “Chocolate” (i.e. Spanish Dance), “Presents of Drosselmeyer” and “Pas de deux : Intrada”.

Hope you learned something new…even if only to make interesting small talk at holiday parties. Happy listening my fellow music lovers!

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