Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Nutcracker Suite

Changing the setting to a forest drifting through the seasons, affected by the movements of nature sprites, was a spark of originality in Disney's Fantasia, but for Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite, it was perhaps the least tumultuous of its convolutions on the road to becoming a Christmas classic.

The original story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King came to Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, who published his version in 1816. Nutcracker dolls themselves originated in Germany in the 17th century, and by the time of Hoffman had become a popular object of Yuletide decoration. That story was, in turn, adapted in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo

Hoffman's story purported to tell the origin of nutcrackers as a curse fallen upon a winsome young man in an ongoing dispute between mouse and human royalty. Little Marie's favourite doll is the family Nutcracker, whose jaw gets broken when her brother tries to crack a nut that is too big and strong. Pleading to stay up late with the broken Nutcracker, which she has bandaged up, Marie becomes party to a battle between the toys - lead by the injured Nutcracker - and the army of mice lead by the Mouse King. Joining the fray, Marie slips and gashes her arm on the glass of their gigantic grandfather clock. Waking up, bandaged and delirious, her tale of miniature warfare goes unheeded. It falls upon Herr Drosselmeyer, the toymaker and her Godfather, to tell her what happened. Returning to their home with the repaired Nutcracker, he weaves a sordid tale of magic curses.

It seems that, some distant time past, the Mouse Queen, Madamme Mouserinks, tricked the human Queen into eating the lard meant for the King's sausage. In revenge, the King ordered the court inventor - also named Drosselmeyer - to prepare traps for Mouserinks and her children. He was only too successful, and the Mouse Queen cursed Princess Pirlpat with an engorged head, wide grinning mouth, and cottony beard. Shifting the blame, the King gave Drosselmeyer only four weeks to find a cure.

Turning to the court astrologer, the two discovered a rather complicated cure: a nearly unbreakable nut, cracked in the mouth of a youth who has never shaved or worn boots, who must hand it to her with his eyes closed, and take seven steps backward without stumbling. They eventually find such a youth in the son of Drosselmeyer's cousin. To entice him, Pirlpat's hand was offered in marriage. Everything goes well until the final step backward, when the Mouse Queen got in the way and he stumbled. The curse transferred to him, and he became the Nutcracker. Revolted by his appearance, the ungrateful Pirlpat had him cast out of the castle.

Promising to vanquish the Mouse King, son of Mouserinks, the Nutcracker is given a toy sword by Marie, borrowed from one of her brother's toy soldiers. He later appears with the Mouse King's crown and whisks Marie off to the land of dolls. Despite the evidence of the Mouse King's crown, Marie is still not believed. She pledges that no matter what, she would be loyal to the Nutcracker, never to betray him as Pirlpat did. Suddenly, Drosselmeyer's nephew appears at the doorstep and proclaims that she has broken the curse. A year and a day later, they are wed and Marie becomes the queen of the land of dolls.

The Nutcracker delivers the Mouse King's crown.
From an 1853 US edition.

For Tchaikovsky's ballet, the Nutcracker's sad backstory was excised. The ballet itself was intended as a two-act accompaniment for a short opera entitled Iolanta, drafted in the wake of Tchaikovsky's success with Sleeping Beauty. The first act of the ballet is roughly equivalent to the beginning of Hoffmann and Dumas' story, but simplifies the whole matter by shrinking Marie (now Clara) down to doll size and having her joining the fight by throwing her shoe at the Mouse King. This alone breaks the curse on the Nutcracker, who takes her to the Land of Sweets. A celebration is staged in her honour, including dances from Spanish chocolate, Arabian coffee, Chinese tea, Russian candy canes, and culminating in a flower waltz and a dance from the Land of Sweets' ruler, the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The Nutcracker debuted in St. Petersburg on December 18, 1892 to largely negative reviews. Many critics deemed it too chaotic, poorly paced, unfaithful to the original story, and with poor dancing from its cast of mostly children of the Imperial Ballet School. From the disaster, Tchaikovsky was able to tease out a 20-minute long Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a. which did prove more successful. The Nutcracker Suite became a regular part of orchestral repertoires and was a popular choice for uptempo, Jazz versions among Big Bands of the Thirties and Forties. Productions of The Nutcracker ballet would not resume until 1919, in a new staging that resolved many of the original criticisms.

Freddy Martin's Big Band version of the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies", c.1942.

By the time of Fantasia, however, The Nutcracker had largely fallen out of favour as a ballet. In the original narration, music scholar Deems Taylor acknowledged that it wasn't much performed anymore. It perhaps bothered few, then, that Walt Disney and his animators put The Nutcracker Suite to such a radically different setting. The only point at which it even remotely touches on the original Christmas setting of Tchaikovsky's ballet is the finale of the "Waltz of the Flowers" when the frost and snow fairies take over.

The Nutcracker's rehabilitation came in the 1950's, when the New York City Ballet began its annual Christmas presentation of the ballet. It spread across the United States and Canada, becoming a seasonal fixture in ballet company schedules. Estimates put up to 40% of an average company's ticket sales being owed to The Nutcracker. Like may auteurs, Tchaikovsky was often ahead of his time. Maligned in its day, The Nutcracker is now the composer's most famous work.        


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