Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker has enchanted audiences around the world for over a century, but what is the secret to its enduring popularity? Daniel Jaffé tells the tale of a magical masterpiece
When the young Clara’s eccentric godfather, Drosselmeyer, drops in bearing gifts, it is clear this will be a Christmas like no other. Bewigged and wearing an eyepatch, Drosselmeyer is a clock- and watch-maker, creator of the most ingenious automata. Yet it is to the least of his creations, a nutcracker carved in the form of a soldier, to whom Clara devotes herself and ultimately rescues when he comes to life…
Such is the kernel of this famous ballet, whose fate curiously mirrors that of its wooden protagonist. Often described as the least of Tchaikovsky’s three ballets, it has been derided by scholars for its ‘trite’ plot (Clara’s ultimate reward, after rescuing her wooden prince, is a child’s paradise of sweets and hot beverages). Yet The Nutcracker has become the most beloved of all ballets, a regular Christmas production on almost every major stage, especially in the United States where it has become as much a part of American tradition as the German Christmas tree. How has this happened? And what is it that has eluded Tchaikovsky experts but has been instinctively grasped by the ballet’s millions of fans?
From an early age, Tchaikovsky had relished stage works involving magic or fantasy such as Weber’s Der Freischütz and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. After seeing Adam’s Giselle he became a ballet devotee. Such was his enthusiasm that, not long after graduating from the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1866, he created a short ballet to entertain his young nieces called The Lake of Swans. His nephew, Yury Davydov, recalled that he not only composed the music but ‘invented the steps and pirouettes, and danced them himself, showing the performers what he required of them. At such moments Uncle Pyotr, red in the face, wet with perspiration as he sang the tune, presented a pretty amusing sight.’
Tchaikovsky soon developed this private entertainment into a full-length ballet, Swan Lake. Eventually staged in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in 1877, where it was hobbled with mediocre choreography and indifferently danced, its music nonetheless stood head and shoulders above the usual run of ballet scores. It was not long before Tchaikovsky’s talent was recognised by the head of the directorate of Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky.
One of ballet’s unsung heroes, Vsevolozhsky not only nurtured Tchaikovsky’s talent for the form, inspiring him to compose Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, but he also raised ballet to a high art-form. A one-time diplomat, Vsevolozhsky had developed his love for French culture (shared by Tchaikovsky) and particularly ballet while posted in Paris. He also had a gift for drawing and design: rumour had it that his diplomatic career was wrecked by his talent as a caricaturist, which he applied to all, regardless of rank.
Now in charge of the Mariinsky Theatre and eager to raise its standards, Vsevolozhsky soon proved an able administrator with a genius for devising ballets. Starting with Sleeping Beauty (1890), he created productions in which music, choreography and design (he himself designing many hundreds of splendid costumes) were united into a single concept, rather than, as had previously been the case, haphazardly thrown together. Vsevolozhsky’s approach would be emulated and then developed in the early 20th century by the legendary impresario, Serge Diaghilev.
The great success of Sleeping Beauty, involving the close collaboration between Vsevolozhsky, Tchaikovsky and the legendary choreographer Marius Petipa, inevitably prompted Vsevolozhsky to plan a sequel from the same team. He was drawn to Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker, as re-written by Alexandre Dumas senior, which was enjoying popularity in Russia. But Tchaikovsky, according to the somewhat unreliable memoirs of his brother, Modest, was ‘not much pleased with the subject’. Tchaikovsky certainly admired the dark fantasy of Hoffmann’s original, and may have been disappointed by Dumas’s tamer version. We can’t be certain, as no correspondence from this early stage in The Nutcracker’s creation has been found: possibly – as was the case with Sleeping Beauty – Tchaikovsky initially discussed the project face-to-face with Vsevolozhsky without a formal contract.
Early in 1891, Tchaikovsky was working against the clock to compose both Nutcracker and an opera with which it was to be double-billed, Yolanta, before an imminent tour in the US. By April, having composed Nutcracker’s overture and first five numbers, as well as the ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’, he had reached the end of his tether. He wrote to Vsevolozhsky begging for a postponement. The various ballet and opera characters, he said, ‘frighten, horrify, and pursue me, waking and sleeping, mocking me with the thought that I shall not cope with them’.
No sooner had the ink dried than he received news that his beloved sister, Sasha, had died. Vsevolozhsky naturally wrote back reassuring Tchaikovsky that everything could be postponed a year. Relieved of this immediate burden, Tchaikovsky fulfilled his tour (obliged by having already spent a good part of a generous advance). He returned newly enthused about the ballet. Inspired by a discovery he made in Paris, he wrote to his publisher about ‘a new orchestral instrument, something between a small piano and a glockenspiel with a divinely marvellous sound… It is called the “Celesta Mustel” and it costs 1,200 francs… I would like to ask you to order this instrument. You will lose nothing on it… you will sell it to the directorate of the Theatres, when they need it for the ballet.’ He begged his publisher to keep the celesta a secret, ‘for I am afraid that Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov will get wind of it and use its unusual effects sooner than me…’
Tchaikovsky had used the glockenspiel in his still little-known Orchestral Suite No. 1, composed in 1879. The March in which the glockenspiel appears anticipates Nutcracker’s soundworld, including the celebrated ‘Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy’. The celesta’s (below) advantage over the glockenspiel was its ability to create through its keyboard the effect of a splashing fountain, as required by Petipa to accompany the Sugar-Plum Fairy. It helped, too, that the celesta’s sound is reminiscent of the musical boxes one might expect to find in Drosselmeyer’s clockwork world.
The celesta was used to evoke the sound of the Sugar Plum Fairy
Another orchestral colour unfamiliar to Tchaikovsky’s audience was the purring of flutter-tongued flutes, a technique he had recently learned from a flautist who had once been his harmony student: he used this sound to depict the cascading river of Rose essence which greets the arrival of Clara and her Nutcracker prince in Act II. Even beside these exotic colours, Tchaikovsky’s mastery of evocative orchestral colours remains peerless. His depiction of the moonlit room just before midnight is an evocative tapestry of fluttering string tremolandos, shuddering bass clarinet, downward plunging harp glissandos and twittering woodwind.
Another striking feature is the score’s array of children’s instruments, including toy trumpets, toy drums, cuckoos, quails and cymbals, all intended to be played on-stage by the child performers in the opening party scene. Tchaikovsky and Vsevolozhsky had planned from the outset that children would play a major role in The Nutcracker, a highly unusual and controversial decision for that time. From their correspondence, and from Petipa’s original choreographic plan, we know that Vsevolozhsky originally intended to have the children perform a series of national dances in costumes presented as Christmas gifts in Act I. This was confounded by Petipa, who suddenly insisted that the sequence be replaced by solos and variations for the Mariinsky’s principal adult dancers. Vsevolozhsky’s frustration is clear from an uncharacteristically unguarded comment to Tchaikovsky in which, despite Petipa’s huge success with Sleeping Beauty, he called his chief choreographer ‘old fashioned’. Petipa, having (rather grudgingly, one suspects) cast the roles of Clara, her brother Fritz and the Nutcracker with students from the theatre school, then inconveniently (or possibly conveniently from his point of view) fell ill just as the ballet went into rehearsal.
Choreographic duties fell to Petipa’s assistant, Lev Ivanov. Though noted for his superb corps de ballet sequences, Ivanov showed little interest in individual dances, often allowing these to be reworked by the solo dancers themselves. He showed even less interest in the extensive pantomime needed for the children in the opening scenes. The result, by all accounts, was too ill-disciplined to charm its audience. One critic wrote: ‘In the first scene, the entire stage is filled with children, who run about, blow their whistles, hop and jump, are naughty, and interfere with the oldsters dancing. In large amounts this is unbearable.’ Worse still was the battle between the mice and the toys. Somebody had the idea of casting young members of a military academy to play the toy soldiers who, it seems, got carried away attacking the mice with their toy rifles – cue pandemonium. Even the artist Alexandre Benois, who admired Vsevolozhsky and later inspired Diaghilev to follow his example, found the battle scene ‘quite senseless and amateurish.’
The rat king
What went wrong? Had Tchaikovsky and Vsevolozhsky badly miscalculated? Several scholars have blamed the scenario, which they claim failed to inspire Tchaikovsky. The fact the ballet involves some of his most inventive and evocative orchestration is merely, they say, to disguise the poverty of his invention: witness the ‘short-breathed’ and ‘exceedingly simple’ character of several of the ballet’s themes, and the fact Tchaikovsky supplemented these with so many ‘borrowed’ themes – for instance, the ‘Arabian Dance’ based on a Georgian lullaby.
Yet the fact remains that he was far from played out – witness the Sixth Symphony that was still to come, or even the remarkable tone poem Voyevoda which, though he rejected it, has since been widely recognised as one of his most remarkable late works. And the fact is that Tchaikovsky, once past his initial creative crisis, described Nutcracker in a letter to Modest as ‘excellent’, while Yolanta, the opera on which he had had high expectations, was in his estimation ‘nothing special’.
So might the alleged shortcomings of Tchaikovsky’s music in Nutcracker have been, in fact, deliberate ploys rather than shortcomings? If Nutcracker was originally intended, in a very real sense, as a ballet for children, this would explain its relatively simple yet brightly coloured themes, and why nearly all the dances, most particularly those in Act I originally intended for child dancers, are relatively short. It may also explain why The Nutcracker, though a ‘full-length’ ballet, is barely more than half the length of either its predecessors, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty: in other words, an ideal length not to tax an audience of young children. The fact that it was originally to be staged as part of a double bill with Yolanta might also explain the ballet’s length, yet there was nothing in the contract Tchaikovsky signed to suggest that the two works should be indissolubly linked, and after the initial run of performances the opera and ballet went their separate ways.
If creating a children’s ballet was indeed Vsevolozhsky and Tchaikovsky’s intention, they were 40 years ahead of their time. But their gauntlet was triumphantly taken up in the 20th century, particularly in the US, with its love of child-friendly fantasies such as The Wizard of Oz, and in Soviet Russia where investment in young talent resulted, and still continues, in producing many fine child dancers. And the psychological depth of Tchaikovsky’s music has been realised – quite independently – in both countries.
The Russian musicologist Boris Asafyev acclaimed Nutcracker as representing ‘the ripening soul of a little girl’ who grows from playing with dolls to ‘the dawn of love through dreams of love of a brave and virile hero’, while Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, found the music ‘bristling with implied action,’ with ‘a subtext alive with wild child cries and belly noises. It is rare and genuine and does justice to the private world of children.’