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The History of The Nutcracker

"For dancers there is rather little in it, for art absolutely nothing, and for the artistic fate of our ballet, one more step downward”, was how the first review of the world premiere performance of The Nutcracker in December 1892 read – not a very auspicious reception for a work that would become one of the most beloved holiday classics with one of the most recognizable scores in the western world.

When Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky first composed the music for Nutcracker in 1891, he already had two other ballets to his credit. The first, Swan Lake, he had composed through 1875, premiering it in 1876. The second, The Sleeping Beauty premiered in 1888.With The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky completed his triple crown and cemented his reputation as the greatest composer of classical ballet, although it would be some time after his death that he achieved this status.

The story for The Nutcracker comes from a morbid tale penned by E. T. A. Hoffman and published in 1816, that although intended for children, was actually a grizzly tale full of evil spells, intended as a comment on the ills of society. In 1844, French writer, Alexandre Dumas Pere published a much sweeter version, entitled Histoire d’un casse noisette. It was this story that Ivan Alexandrovitch Vsevolojsky, Director of the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg brought to Tchaikovsky and choreographer Marius Petipa as a commission. This trio had teamed on the successful The Sleeping Beauty, so Vsevolojsky decided they should try their hand at an entirely new work.

Marius Petipa is, of course, the father of classical ballet. A Frenchman who worked as the chief choreographer in the Imperial Russian Ballet, Petipa perfected the full-length story ballet.

Neither Petipa nor Tchaikovsky liked the story. Petipa’s dislike was centred on what he perceived as a lack of opportunity in the narrative, for a large corps de ballet spectacle piece. Tchaikovsky was not enamoured by the plot, and when Petipa introduced the character of a Sugarplum Fairy and decided to diminish the roles of Clara and Drosselmeyer, he grew concerned that the plot had been even further compromised. But Vsevolojsky persisted, inducing Tchaikovsky to continue work on the project by offering him another commission for a one-act opera.

The first draft of the music was completed by July 1891 and the orchestration begun in January 1892. When he reviewed the completed work, Tchaikovsky deemed it “all ugliness”. His one-act opera Iolanthe premiered on December 17, 1892, which was also the night of The Nutcracker’s premiere performance. In subsequent years, Tchaikovsky wrote, “Strange that when I was composing the ballet I kept thinking it wasn’t very good, but I would show them (the Imperial Theatres) what I can do when I began the opera. And now it seems that the ballet is good and the opera not so good.”

In the ensuing century, The Nutcracker has become a seasonal staple with the first production outside of Russia performed in 1934 at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, England. The first full-length Nutcracker in North America took place in December 2004 performed by the San Francisco Ballet. Balanchine’s version premiered in 1954 and in 1964 Celia Franca’s version premiered in Canada at the same time as Les Grands Ballets Canadiens opened Fernand Nault’s Nutcracker.

And the History of Nutcrackers
The history of wooden nutcrackers is tough to pin down precisely. Stories about enchanted nutcrackers appear in folk tales of Bohemia and Poland but it seems that the carved object originated in the Saxony region of Germany about 250 years ago. At that time the coalmines were becoming depleted and so the local mineworkers turned to other ways to make a living. Carving household objects out of wood became the regional specialty. There are records of wooden nutcrackers in 1650 in Berchtesgaden and 1735 in Sonneberg, but it is not known if either was in the form of a figure. The first noted nutcracker in the form we know today was the c.1750 product of Erzgebirge, Germany. Originally nutcrackers were fashioned after authoritarian figures such as soldiers, policemen and church leaders but later the cast of characters came to include villagers such as bakers and hunters. Legend holds that a wealthy farmer sponsored a contest for the best product to crack open his crop of nuts. The winner of the contest, a puppeteer, was awarded a workshop for future generations to continue producing these nutcrackers. It has been said that the seasonal popularity of nutcrackers is based on the fact that gilded nuts were a popular tree decoration and that something equally decorative was needed to open the nuts to enjoy their contents. The success of Tchaikovsky's ballet cannot be discounted as a reason for the popularity of nutcrackers. To this day, the most collectible nutcrackers originate in Germany. The production of them for export was a major industry under communist rule.

From Notes compiled by Gerard Charles, BalletMet Columbus

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