Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker

Article excerpt

debuted December 1892

THE NUTCRACKER BALLET premiered in December 1892 at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg together with the opera lolanta (or lolanthe). At that point, no one suspected that Tchaikovsky, who composed the music for both, had less than a year to live. The day of the premiere was a day of fairy-tale endings, with one story about a blind girl whose sight is restored by the power of love and another about a little girl named Marie whose love transforms a toy nutcracker into a handsome prince.

One thing that has not changed since The Nutcracker entered the international ballet repertoire is its popularity (people will always need fairy tales). In other regards, The Nutcracker has undergone remarkable transformations over the course of its 1 20-year history

The ballet's basic plot first came into being as a novella by the German writer E.T.A. Hoffman titled The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Hoffman's young heroine is named Marie, but in 1892 she appeared on the stage as Clara, having for some reason been given the name of Marie's favorite doll in Hoffman's version. The ballet's young protagonist eventually became Marie, but when World War I inflamed anti-German sentiment, she evolved into Masha. On the Russian stage she remains Masha to this day. Her brother Fritz, on the other hand, being an unappealing sort, was allowed to retain his German name, at least for a while. When the name Fritz began to be too strongly associated with Fascism, Fritz turned into Misha.

Another transformation has to do with the holiday being celebrated in the ballet. During the Soviet period, that magical Christmas eve had no choice but to turn into a magical New Year's Eve, and the ballet was scarcely performed in the Soviet Union at all until the 1930s, when the ban on yolki (Christmas trees, which in Soviet times were treated exclusively as New Year's trees) was lifted and Soviet children were again allowed to celebrate a holiday during the cold, dark days following the winter solstice.

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The powers that be in Russia have always played fast and loose with the composer's life and work. His tragic ending of Swan Lake was replaced with a triumph of love, despite the hopeless desperation suggested by the music. And Tchaikovsky has been made out to be a compiler of folk melodies that he slightly adapted and blended into his compositions, akin to Glinka, who is credited as saying, "Music is composed by the people and we composers merely arrange it."

For many years Tchaikovsky's homosexuality and the disturbing rumors about his death were simply ignored. All that Russians really knew was the kindly and cheerful folk composer who gave Russian children the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and numerous charming tales.

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This conception of Tchaikovsky is blind to the fact that he specifically chose Hoffman's rather gloomy and mystical work for his ballet, albeit in Alexandre Dumas' slightly subdued adaptation, which was further sugarcoated by the choreographer Marius Petipa. Indeed, The Nutcracker is not really such light, cheerful fare--inanimate objects come threateningly to life and evil mice and other mysterious creatures invade the nursery, embodying the darkest fears of childhood. But The Nutcracker was generally treated as a charming New Year's tale and nothing more.

There is no denying that The Nutcracker is indeed a charming tale, that it is generally performed around the New Year, or that it makes use of folk motifs and is greatly appealing to children with its dancing dolls and magical creatures. Furthermore, Masha, whether in the person of Galina Ulanova or Yekaterina Maximova, has always been a figure of incredible poetry and tenderness. …