Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

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Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

Post  eddie on Fri Dec 30, 2011 12:38 am

Toy story: Chewing over Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

Those who dismiss the composer's Christmas favourite as a throwaway should consider the sad events behind its creation

Gavin Plumley

guardian.co.uk, Friday 16 December 2011 22.54 GMT


Sweet nothings … Thiago Soares (the Prince) and Sarah Lamb (Sugar Plum Fairy) in the Royal Ballet's version of The Nutcracker. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote music for the soul. Yet The Nutcracker – the balletic equivalent of a Terry's Chocolate Orange – has seemingly few claims to profundity. Snowflakes and Sugar Plum Fairies are hardly the stuff of great drama. At the ballet's premiere in 1892, the audience couldn't see anything beyond the glitzy packaging. Like us, they wondered how Tchaikovsky, the great empathiser, could have written something so shallow.

Commissioned by the Imperial Mariinsky theatre as a festive treat, The Nutcracker reunited Tchaikovsky with the great choreographer Marius Petipa (though he later withdrew because of illness). Following the huge success of The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, the tsar's theatrical minions wanted another hit from the famed duo. They commanded a double bill, requiring Tchaikovsky to write scores for both an opera and a ballet. Iolanta, about a blind princess saved by love, was the composer's idea for the first half, while Petipa plumped for ETA Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King as the basis for his ballet. Unable to refuse the tsar's demands, Tchaikovsky was forced to bite off more than he could crack.

As with The Sleeping Beauty, Petipa took charge of the synopsis of the ballet and created two rather facile scenarios. The first act is a children's pantomime, complete with party games. During the festivities, Uncle Drosselmeyer gives Clara a toy nutcracker. At night, the doll – with his nephew trapped inside by an evil mouse – comes back to life and takes Clara on a miraculous journey. By the second act the young pair have reached the Kingdom of Sweets, where confected treats dance for their delight. When Petipa handed over the synopsis, including a bar-by-bar musical wish list, Tchaikovsky was appalled.

"I am experiencing a kind of crisis," he said. After the glorious pageantry of The Sleeping Beauty, this was infantile stuff. But his depression was more pervasive: the relentless sniping of the St Petersburg critics had got to him, the tsar had snubbed his latest opera The Queen of Spades and his muse-like friendship with Nadezhda von Meck had come to a bitter end. With an imperial commission hanging over him, however, there was little he could do. Leaving the frozen Russian winter behind, Tchaikovsky hid in Rouen in early 1891, desperately trying to compose. But nothing sparked his interest and the music that emerged was dry and lifeless. The double bill was due on stage later that year, but the tsar would just have to wait.

Worse was yet to come. While travelling through Paris on his way to an American tour, Tchaikovsky read about the death of his beloved sister Sasha. Hysterical, he described an increasingly split personality: the one crumbling inside and the other that he had to maintain for adoring transatlantic fans. But instead of damaging his new project, Sasha's death rekindled Tchaikovsky's inspiration. It was not the first time that disaster had inspired his creativity: the opera Eugene Onegin was the product of a brief but catastrophic marriage. This time, The Nutcracker was going to be a repository for Tchaikovsky's grief.

After Sasha's death, the composer embraced the ballet. In Clara, he found a parallel for his sister. Memories of their childhood and the last Christmas they spent together, in 1890, fuelled the music. The whole ballet was transformed by his change in attitude, with Tchaikovsky imagining himself as the magician Drosselmeyer. In a particularly fantastical sequence, Clara and the Nutcracker fight the Mouse King. Clara thwacks the rodent over the head with her slipper and breaks the spell, releasing the dashing Hans Peter. Heroism and freedom find voice in one of Tchaikovsky's most longing melodies. Clara has become a woman, and in her the spirit of Sasha lives on. For something that been conceived as children's entertainment, the music wonderfully overstates its case.

Despite this emotional power, people continue to dismiss the ballet, just as they did in 1892. David Brown, the first person to write openly about Tchaikovsky's private life in his 2007 biography, suggests many allegorical readings for The Sleeping Beauty but felt there was little point in analysing The Nutcracker, however "relaxing" and glorious its music. And many still approach the seasonal glut of productions with the indifference of one dragged to the office party. Tchaikovsky's "In Memoriam" deserves better.

Even Peter Wright, who produced the Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet's versions of the tale in 1984 and 1990 respectively, was initially hesitant about the story. But by trusting the melancholic colours in the score, his productions are the most emotionally acute to date. Clara's journey takes us out of the everyday and, liberated from the Nutcracker's wooden shackles, Hans Peter becomes her guardian angel. This is a story that confronts mortality head on. The landscapes change and Tchaikovsky unfolds a dazzling network of themes. The young pair's journey is like a dancing Dream of Gerontius. The Kingdom of Sweets appears through Petipa's sea of lemonade like a candied afterlife.

In the original production, the ballet ended in the Sugar Plum Fairy's frosted domain. Today, many versions return Clara and Hans Peter home at the end of their dream. While that sub-John Bunyan conclusion deftly joins the acts together, Tchaikovsky (and Petipa) concealed more understated signs of the transience of things. The ballet's second act is a reflection of the first, with the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince appearing as seraphic counterparts for Clara and her consort. While the latter pair dance to a rising melody, the Sugar Plum Fairy's pas de deux with the Prince is dominated by a solemn descending motif. The "Waltz of the Flowers", with its brooding minor passages, echoes the triple-time dance through the snowflakes. And in Petipa's original scenario, the second act's jaunty divertissements had opposite numbers in Clara's family party. Tchaikovsky's virtually palindromic sequence of keys highlights that these are all divine reflections of life on earth.

The Nutcracker undoubtedly poses much larger questions than is often suggested. Like the wise men of TS Eliot's "Journey of the Magi", Tchaikovsky asks whether we were "led all that way for / Birth or Death". During the final three years of his life, valediction dominated the composer's thoughts. He began a new symphony while awaiting proofs of The Nutcracker in May 1892. Although Tchaikovsky abandoned those early sketches, it was the beginning of plans for his forlorn Pathétique symphony. The deathly muse struck again two months after the premiere of The Nutcracker and he drafted the entire symphony in just under a month. Nine days after the first performance in October 1893, Tchaikovsky was dead. Rumours of suicide can never be proved, but death had certainly been on the composer's mind for some time.

Far from the anticipated tinselled treat, The Nutcracker finally offers a soulful message. Its towering Christmas tree and "Everyone's a Fruit & Nut case" dances will continue to fill audiences with cheer. But a deeper understanding of the score and Tchaikovsky's state of mind uncovers a much richer interpretation. As with Andy's departure at the end of Toy Story 3 or the sight of Snowman's melted remains, innocence fades and magic ends. But Tchaikovsky is there to wipe our tears.

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Re: Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

Post  Constance on Fri Dec 30, 2011 2:03 am

The Nutcracker at American Ballet Theater. I've seen it many times.


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Re: Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

Post  Constance on Fri Dec 30, 2011 2:04 am


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Re: Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

Post  eddie on Fri Dec 30, 2011 11:56 pm

Constance wrote:The Nutcracker at American Ballet Theater. I've seen it many times.


Ballet (in fact, Dance generally) is under-represented in this section. Maybe you could redress the balance, Constance? I must confess that I don't know much about it.

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Re: Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

Post  Constance on Sat Dec 31, 2011 12:59 am

Before children I used to go to American Ballet Theater every week when they were home in NYC. They dance in the majestic Metropolitan Opera House. Two wonderful Chagall murals hang in the main lobby.



I would go in on Wednesday afternoons and early in the morning I would get a standing room ticket for the matinee. I would try to be first online. Then I would hang out in the Lincoln Center library or go somewhere in the city for a few hours.

American Ballet Theater is not Balanchine's theater. That is New York City ballet across the mall. But the City ballet didn't have Wednesday matinees. We would go there occasionally, buying tickets the regular way and going on the weekend.

I saw all of the traditional ballets at American Ballet Theater. My favorite is Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet as it was danced by Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca.







This next is Julie Kent in Swan Lake, another wonderful role.



After the lights went down, the usher used to send us down to the orchestra seats. I would get what was then a $65 dollar seat for $7.

I am not a cryer by any stretch, but the Romeo and Juliet would have me in tears.

I took ballet lessons in my 20s (like Zelda Fitzgerald), sometimes three times a week. I got as far as classes at State University of New York in Purchase, NY (the artsy college). Now I am winded if I have to climb a staircase.






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Re: Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

Post  eddie on Sat Dec 31, 2011 1:07 am

^

Ha!

That's just the kind of thing we need here. cheers

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Re: Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

Post  Constance on Sat Dec 31, 2011 1:10 am

Eddie, I will start a few ballet threads when I have more time, if only pictures of Margo Fonteyn, Nuryev, Nijinsky. Thanks for the suggestion. But unfortunately I don't know much about the history of dance or companies outside of NYC. Don't know anything about modern dance except I've seen some dances by Twyla Tharp.

In London at the Royal Ballet I saw an incredible performance of Manon with Carla Fracci and Richard Craygun, another famous partnership. I remember liking the crowd at the theater very much.

Here is Carla Fracci.


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Re: Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

Post  Constance on Sat Dec 31, 2011 1:14 am

We're leaving in a little while to see Mary Poppins on Broadway. Singing and dancing! A friend generously gave us tickets for Christmas.

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Re: Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

Post  eddie on Sun Jan 01, 2012 3:10 am

http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=youtube+dick+van+dyck+mary+poppins&qpvt=youtube+dick+van+dyck+mary+poppins&mid=EFFD90C60FD5892BD5D5EFFD90C60FD5892BD5D5&FORM=LKVR27#
Dick van Dyck and Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins. Supercali...etc.

Gor blimey!

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Re: Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

Post  Constance on Mon Jan 02, 2012 1:18 am

Back home now and still dreaming about the show. The level of the performers was unbelievably high in every role. I give those actors and actresses so much credit for putting on the show every night and sometimes twice in a day. The two children who play Jane and Michael Banks were on stage for much of the duration of the job and their singing, dancing, and performance were fantastic. Only 9 and 11 years old and according to the playbill they already had a sizeable amount of stage credit.

Driving in the city and finding a parking garage were harder than usual given the tourists and the post-Christmas shopping crowds. But we did fine.

Great video, Eddie! Now I have to get the film for the kids. Julia wants to read the books. The author P L Travers lived to be 97. She left her native Australia for England, became interested in myth and primitive culture, and went to the US to live among the Navajo. She taught writing at Smith and Radcliffe.






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Re: Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

Post  eddie on Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:17 am

A couple more clips from Mary Poppins:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=te_Nv3lMUnA
Chim Chim Cher-ee- Dick Van Dyck.

^ A must for students of myth and primitive culture. Sweeps WERE, indeed, considered to be lucky- particularly as wedding guests. Peter Ackroyd believes that a kind of counter-intuitive process was in operation here: sweeps often developed genital cancers as a result of their exposure to carcinogens in a cramped working environment.


Last edited by eddie on Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:25 am; edited 1 time in total

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Re: Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

Post  Constance on Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:20 am

Interesting.

Yes, they sang all the songs that were in the movie.

The actor who played Bert originated the role in London.

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Re: Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

Post  eddie on Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:23 am

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQgXccbxHbM
Me Ol' Bamboo- Dick Van Dyck

Dick confesses himself that he was rather older and considerably less supple of limb than the supporting male dancers. You can see his relief as he just makes the culminating leap over the ol' bamboo.

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Re: Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

Post  Guest on Mon Jan 02, 2012 4:04 am

Constance wrote:They dance in the majestic Metropolitan Opera House. Two wonderful Chagall murals hang in the main lobby.

cat

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