Our story begins in 1816, with E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.“
Hoffman lived in the Kingdom of Prussia and wrote stories that merged fantasy and reality, and which often included inanimate things come to life. His story about the Nutcracker included some gruesome details, so when Alexandre Dumas wrote his version of the tale in 1844, it was watered-down and less scary. Dumas’ is the version that was used when, in 1892, the Nutcracker tale was turned into a ballet by a team of Russians.
At that time, a man named Ivan Vsevolovsky was Director of the Imperial Theatre. He commissioned Tchaikovsky to compose music for a new double-bill to contain an opera and a ballet. The opera was Iolanta and the ballet was The Nutcracker. His contemporary,
Marius Petipa, had been Ballet Master at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg for over 2 decades. He had an unparalleled history of choreographing significant ballets and he was to be the choreographer for The Nutcracker. However, having written an overall choreographic plan, Petipa then fell ill and had to hand over the work to a man named Lev Ivanov. Ivanov was a dancer and choreographer who was Petipa’s assistant and eventually became the second Ballet Master at the Imperial Theatre.
Before handing the work over to Ivanov, Petipa gave Tchaikovsky detailed instructions, including the desired tempo, the specific number
of bars for each section and even the character of the music. In 1891, while Tchaikovsky was working on the score for The Nutcracker, he was engaged to conduct several of his own works for the opening of Carnegie Hall. Tchaikovsky turned his trip to America into a tour of conducting engagements across Europe, and when he was in Paris he met the inventor of an instrument he’d never seen or heard before.
That instrument was the celesta. It is a kind of short upright piano, whose hammers hit steel bars over wooden resonators and there is one pedal to sustain the notes.
It was named for its heavenly sound, which is similar to, but softer than a glockenspiel. Tchaikovsky recalled that Petipa had requested music that sounded like “the sprays of a fountain” for the Sugar Plum Fairy. When he heard the celesta he contacted his publisher right away, asking that he order one quickly – and quietly – before any other composers could use the instrument in their works. Today its music box-like sound is heard in many other scores, including the Mr. Rogers theme and in the Harry Potter movies.
At the ballet’s premiere in December of 1892, Tchaikovsky’s score filled the Mariinsky Theater. It was the height of the golden age of classical ballet in Russia.
The Nutcracker was assumed to be a guaranteed hit, given that it was the same creative team that produced the successful ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, only two years before. But for The Nutcracker there were mixed reviews for the dancers and the libretto. Some critics felt the Sugarplum Fairy was not graceful enough; others thought the choreography wasn’t complex enough for music. And the focus on children in the production was widely panned! The music received more favorable reviews, but Tchaikovsky died the following year having no idea that The Nutcracker would be a defining work for him. The ballet had limited public appeal and soon fell from the repertoire.
It wasn’t until the middle of the next century that The Nutcracker would become a hit, landing on American shores with European touring companies.
In 1940 there were two events that would pave the way for The Nutcracker we know today. First, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo toured America with a popular one-act Nutcracker Suite. And second, Disney studios released the movie Fantasia. It contained large chunks of music from the ballet and this helped familiarize households across America with the score.
In 1944 America saw its first full-length production of the ballet with Willam Christensen’s version set on San Francisco Ballet.
In 1954 when George Balanchine created his version of the ballet for New York City Ballet, he found, ironically, that the casting of children that was so unpopular in Imperial Russia was wildly popular with American audiences.
Balanchine felt strongly that it was the children’s energy and wisdom that made the ballet what it was and he often trained the young performers himself.
Reawaken your childlike wonder this season.