The Nutcracker (Щелкунчик, Shchelkunchik) Op. 71, is a fairy tale-ballet in two acts, three scenes, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, composed in 1891–92. Alexandre Dumas père's adaptation of the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann was set to music by Tchaikovsky (written by Marius Petipa and commissioned by the director of the Imperial Theatres Ivan Vsevolozhsky in 1891). In Western countries, this ballet has become perhaps the most popular ballet performed, primarily around Christmas time. The Nutcracker is based on the story The Nutcracker and the King of Mice.
The composer made a selection of eight of the more popular numbers from the ballet before the ballet's December 1892 premiere, forming The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a, intended for concert performance. The suite was first performed, under the composer's direction, on 19 March 1892 at an assembly of the St. Petersburg branch of the Musical Society. The suite became instantly popular; the complete ballet did not achieve its great popularity until around the mid-1960s.
Among other things, the score of The Nutcracker is noted for its use of the celesta, an instrument that the composer had already employed in his much lesser known symphonic ballad The Voyevoda (premiered 1891). Although well-known in The Nutcracker as the featured solo instrument in the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from Act II, it is employed elsewhere in the same act.woodwinds:
While composing the music for the ballet, Tchaikovsky is said to have argued with a friend who wagered that the composer could not write a melody based on the notes of the octave in sequence. Tchaikovsky asked if it mattered whether the notes were in ascending or descending order, and was assured it did not. This resulted in the Grand adage from the Grand pas de deux of the second act.
St. Petersburg Premiere
The first performance of the ballet was held as a double premiere together with Tchaikovsky's last opera Iolanta on 18 December, 1892, at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. Who exactly choreographed the first production has been debated. Although Lev Ivanov, Second Balletmaster to the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres is often credited, contemporary accounts credit Marius Petipa, Premier Maître de Ballet of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres. The ballet was conducted by Riccardo Drigo, with Antoinetta Dell-Era as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Pavel Gerdt as Prince Coqueluche, Stanislava Belinskaya as Clara, Sergei Legat as the Nutcracker-Prince, and Timofei Stukolkin as Drosselmeyer.
In other countries
The ballet was first performed outside Russia in Budapest (Royal Opera House) in 1927 with choreography of Ede Brada. First performance was in England in 1934. Its first United States performance was in 1944, by the San Francisco Ballet, staged by its artistic director Willam Christensen. New York City Ballet first performed George Balanchine's Nutcracker in 1954.
Note: The two lists of characters below are derived from the score (see reprint of Soviet ed.: Peter Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker: a ballet in two acts. For piano solo. Op. 71. Melville, N.Y.: Belwin Mills Publ. Corp., [n.d.], p. 4). Productions of the ballet vary in their fidelity to this assignment of roles.
Characters (translated from Russian preliminaries of the Soviet ed.)
The following more detailed, and somewhat different, extrapolation of the characters (in order of appearance) is drawn from an examination of the stage directions in the score (Soviet ed., where they are printed in the original French with added Russian translation in editorial footnotes): ACT I
The story has been published in many book versions including colourful children-friendly versions. The plot revolves around a German girl named Clara Stahlbaum or Clara Silverhaus. In some Nutcracker productions, Clara is called Marie. (In Hoffmann's tale, the girl's name actually is Marie or Maria, while Clara - or "Klärchen" - is the name of one of her dolls.)
The work opens with a brief “Miniature Overture”, which also opens the Suite. The music sets the fairy mood by using upper registers of the orchestra exclusively. The curtain opens to reveal the Stahlbaums' house, where a Christmas Eve party is under way. Clara, her little brother Fritz, and their mother and father are celebrating with friends and family, when the mysterious godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, enters. He quickly produces a large bag of gifts for all the children. All are very happy, except for Clara, who has yet to be presented a gift. Herr Drosselmeyer then produces three life-size dolls, which each take a turn to dance. When the dances are done, Clara approaches Herr Drosselmeyer asking for her gift. It would seem that he is out of presents, and Clara runs to her mother in a fit of tears and disappointment.
Drosselmeyer then produces a toy Nutcracker, in the traditional shape of a soldier in full parade uniform. Clara is overjoyed, but her brother Fritz is jealous, and breaks the Nutcracker.
The party ends and the Stahlbaum family go to bed. While everybody is sleeping, Herr Drosselmeyer repairs the Nutcracker. Then Clara wakes up and sees her window open. When the clock strikes midnight, Clara hears the sound of mice. She wakes up and tries to run away, but the mice stop her. Alternatively, perhaps Clara is still in a dream: the Christmas tree suddenly begins to grow to enormous size, filling the room. The Nutcracker comes to life, he and his band of soldiers rise to defend Clara, and the Mouse King leads his mice into battle. Here Tchaikovsky continues the miniature effect of the Overture, setting the battle music predominantly in the orchestra's upper registers.
A conflict ensues, and when Clara helps the Nutcracker by holding the Mouse King by the tail or throwing her shoe at the Mouse King, the Nutcracker seizes his opportunity and stabs him. The mouse dies. The mice retreat, taking their dead leader with them. The Nutcracker is then transformed into a prince. (In Hoffmann's original story, and in the Royal Ballet's 1985 and 2001 versions, the Prince is actually Drosselmeyer's nephew, who had been turned into a Nutcracker by the Mouse King, and all the events following the Christmas party have been arranged by Drosselmeyer in order to break the spell.)
Clara and the Prince travel to a world where dancing Snowflakes greet them and fairies and queens dance, welcoming Clara and the Prince into their world. The score conveys the wondrous images by introducing a wordless children’s chorus. The curtain falls on Act I.
Clara and the Prince arrive at the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Sugar Plum Fairy and the people of the Land of Sweets dance for Clara and the Prince in the dances of Dew Drop Fairy, the Spanish dancers (sometimes Chocolate), the Chinese dancers (sometimes Tea), the Arabian dancers (sometimes Coffee), the Russian dancers (sometimes Candy Canes--their dance is called the Trepak), Mother Ginger and her Polichinelles (sometimes Bonbons, Taffy Clowns, or Court Buffoons in Baryshnikov's production), the Reed Flutes (sometimes Marzipan shepherds or Mirlitons), the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the Waltz of the Flowers. The dances in the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy are not always performed in this order.
After the festivities, Clara wakes up under the Christmas tree with the Nutcracker toy in her arms and the curtain closes. (In Balanchine's version, however, she is never shown waking up; instead, after all the dances in the Kingdom of Sweets have concluded, she rides off with the Nutcracker/Prince on a Santa Claus-like flying sleigh, complete with reindeer, and the curtain falls. This gives the impression that the "dream" actually happens in reality, as in Hoffmann's original story. The 1985 Royal Ballet version seems to imply the same thing, since at the end, Drosselmeyer's nephew, who had really been transformed into a nutcracker, reappears in human form at the toymaker's shop.)
It was not until 1944 that the first complete production in the U.S. took place, performed by the San Francisco Ballet, and choreographed by Willam Christensen. The company was the first in the U.S. to make the ballet an annual tradition, and for many years, the only company in the United States performing the complete ballet.
In 1954 George Balanchine followed in Christensen's footsteps by choreographing and premiering his New York City Ballet version. Balanchine's Nutcracker has since been staged in New York every year, performed live on television twice - although its first television edition, on the TV anthology Seven Lively Arts, was severely abridged - and made into a poorly received full-length feature film in 1993, starring Macaulay Culkin in his only screen ballet role. The stage success of the Balanchine version contributed greatly to making productions of The Nutcracker annual Christmas season traditions all over the world - a phenomenon that did not really come to flower until the late 1960s. In Balanchine's version, the roles of Clara (here called Marie) and the Nutcracker are danced by children, and so their dances are choreographed to not be as difficult as the ones performed by the adults.
The popularity of the Balanchine Nutcracker could be said to have been seriously challenged, however, by the highly acclaimed American Ballet Theatre version choreographed by and starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, which premiered in 1976 at the Kennedy Center, was re-staged for television and first telecast by CBS with limited commercial interruption in 1977, and is now a TV holiday classic.
Baryshnikov omits the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince Orgeat, and gives their dances to Clara and the Nutcracker/Prince; so that in his version, the two do not merely sit out most of the entire second act as they do in other productions (notably Balanchine's). In addition, although the Mother Ginger and her Clowns music is heard, we never see Mother Ginger herself, only four court clowns who perform the dance.
In Baryshnikov's version, contrary to what is often written, it is not Clara's brother Fritz who breaks the Nutcracker, but an unnamed drunken guest at the Christmas party who is trying to make the toy "grow" to life-size. He is last seen tipsily leaving with the other guests.
The stage version of this production originally starred Baryshnikov, Marianna Tcherkassky as Clara, and Alexander Minz as Drosselmeyer, However, for the TV version the role of Clara went to Gelsey Kirkland, and it is Kirkland, not Tcherkassky, who has been widely seen in this production of the ballet. Clara is considered one of Gelsey Kirkland's most memorable roles.
Except for Tcherkassky, the rest of the cast of this production also appeared in it on television. The television version was not a live performance of the ballet, but a special presentation shot on videotape in a TV studio (with no studio audience) in Toronto, Canada.
The Baryshnikov Nutcracker has since become both the most popular television version of the work and the bestselling videocassette and DVD version of the ballet. It usually outsells not only every other video version of The Nutcracker, including the 1993 film of Balanchine's version, but every other ballet video as well. It is still telecast annually on some PBS stations. In 2004, it was re-mastered and reissued on DVD with a markedly improved visual image showing far greater detail and more vivid colors than before, as well as sound that, if not present-day state-of-the-art, was far better than its original 1977 audio. It is only one of two versions of the ballet to have been nominated for Emmys - the other was Mark Morris's intentionally exaggerated and satirical take on the ballet, The Hard Nut, telecast on PBS in 1992. (Seven Lively Arts did win an Emmy for Best New Program of 1957, so one could say that The Nutcracker was included in that win, although the award itself did not specifically say so.)
Years later, Alessandra Ferri danced the role of Clara in a stage revival of Baryshnikov's production.
In 1990, Mark Morris began work on his version of The Nutcracker, taking inspiration from the horror-comic artist Charles Burns. The art of Charles Burns is personal and deeply instilled with archetypal concepts of guilt, childhood, adolescent sexuality, and poignant, nostalgic portrayals of post-war America.
He enlisted a team of collaborators to create a world not unlike that of Burns’ world, where stories take comic book clichés and rearrange them into disturbing yet funny patterns.
Morris turned to Adrianne Lobel to create sets that would take Hoffmann’s tale out of the traditional German setting and into Burns’ graphic, black and white view of things. With these immense sets and scrims, lighting designer James F. Ingalls created a dark world within retro 1960s suburbia and costume designer Martin Pakledinaz created costumes that helped bring to life Burns’ world, described as being “at the juncture of fiction and memory, of cheap thrills and horror.” The last of 10 pieces Mark Morris created during his time as Director of Dance at the National Opera House of Belgium, the piece was his most ambitious work to date. He called it The Hard Nut.
The Hard Nut premiered on January 12, 1991 at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, just short of the 100th anniversary of the creation of Tchaikovsky’s classic score. Audiences found it a shocking but exhilarating version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, its impact still felt year after year. Shortly after the premiere, MMDG returned to the United States, having finished their three-year residency at the Monnaie. But the Monnaie seemed the most fitting stage to film the production so the company returned six months later with film crew in hand for encore performances in Belgium’s national opera house that were made available on VHS and Laserdisc. A DVD release is scheduled in 2007.
Recent Russian versions
One novelty in Tchaikovsky's original score was the use of the celesta, a new instrument Tchaikovsky had discovered in Paris. He wanted it genuinely for the character of the Sugar Plum Fairy to characterize her because of its "heavenly sweet sound". It appears not only in her "Dance," but also in other passages in Act II. Tchaikovsky also uses toy instruments during the Christmas party scene. Tchaikovsky was proud of the celesta's effect, and wanted its music performed quickly for the public, before he could be "scooped." Everyone was enchanted.
Suites derived from this ballet became very popular on the concert stage. The composer himself extracted a suite of eight pieces from the ballet, but that authoritative move has not prevented later hands from arranging other selections and sequences of numbers. Eventually one of these ended up in Disney's Fantasia. In any case, The Nutcracker Suite should not be mistaken for the complete ballet.
Although the original ballet is only about 85 minutes long, and therefore much shorter than Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty, some modern staged performances have omitted or re-ordered some of the music, or inserted selections from elsewhere, thus adding to the confusion over the suites. In fact, most of the very famous versions of the ballet have had the order of the dances slightly re-arranged, if they have not actually altered the music.
Tchaikovsky: Suite from the ballet The Nutcracker
The suite derived and abridged from the ballet became more popular for a time than the ballet itself, partly due to its inclusion in Walt Disney's Fantasia. The outline below represents the selection and sequence of the Nutcracker Suite culled by the composer.
Pletnev: Concert suite from The Nutcracker, for solo piano
The pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev adapted some of the music into a virtuosic concert suite for piano solo:
On the other end of the scale is the humorous Spike Jones version released in December 1945 and again in 1971 as part of the long play record Spike Jones is Murdering the Classics, one of the rare comedic pop records to be issued on the prestigious RCA Red Seal label.
In 2001, another jazz version appeared on television, this one entitled The Swinging Nutcracker.
Another one, using the Ellington-Strayhorn jazz arrangement of the score, and entitled Nutcracker Sweeties, very recently (2006) appeared on cable television, and is available on DVD. It sets the ballet in the United States during the 1940s, and all of the dances, except for the last two, which he actually sees, are visualized by a World War II soldier on leave roaming the streets of New York in a rented car and listening to the jazz arrangement, which is being broadcast over the radio. The choreography is by David Bintley, and the work is performed by the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
A variation of The Nutcracker is performed in the Broadway musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. During a scene in a speakeasy, "The Nuttycracker Suite" is played. It features jazz versions of the famous dances within The Nutcracker, especially the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
A feature-length variation on the tale set in 1920's Vienna, Nutcracker: The Untold Story, featuring John Turturro as the Mouse King, Elle Fanning as Mary (rather than Clara) and Nathan Lane as a new character, Uncle Albert, is scheduled to be released during the holiday season of 2009. It is currently (2008) in post-production. The film is written and directed by Andrei Konchalovsky.
A humorous adaptation of "The Dance of the Reed Flutes" was used in a 1975 television commercial for "Cadbury's Fruit and Nut" chocolate bars by the Birmingham UK -based chocolate manufacturer Cadbury. The commercial was voiced by writer and television personality Frank Muir and first line of the ditty was "Everyone's a Fruit and Nut case".
Many recordings have been made since the early twentieth century of the Nutcracker Suite, but it was not until the LP album was developed that recordings of the complete ballet began to be made. Because the ballet's approximate hour and a half length, it fit very comfortably onto two LPs. Most CD recordings take up two discs, often with fillers due to the under ninety-minute length of the ballet. An unusual exception is the Valery Gergiev recording, which runs for 81 minutes, and thus fit onto one CD.
1954, the year in which the Balanchine version of the ballet was first staged, was also the year that the first complete recording - in mono sound - appeared on Mercury Records. It was performed by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Antal Dorati, who years later went on to record it complete twice more with other orchestras, on Mercury Records in 1962 and on Philips Records in 1975 respectively. These later recordings were both made in stereo. Some have hailed the 1975 recording, featuring the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, as the finest ever made of the complete ballet. It also is faithful to the score in employing a boys choir in the Waltz of the Snowflakes. Many other recordings use an adult or mixed choir.
In 1956, the conductor Artur Rodzinski made a complete recording of the ballet on stereo master tapes for Westminster Records, but because stereo was not possible on the LP format in 1956, the ballet was issued in stereo on magnetic tape, and only a mono LP set was issued. (Recently, the Rodzinski performance was issued in stereo on CD.)
In 1958, the first stereo LP of the complete ballet, with Ernest Ansermet conducting the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, appeared on Decca Records in the UK and London Records in the U.S.. And with the advent of the stereo era coinciding with the growing popularity of the complete ballet, many other complete recordings of it have been made over the last 30 years. Notable conductors who have done so include Maurice Abravanel, Andre Previn, Valery Gergiev, Mariss Jansons, Seiji Ozawa, Richard Bonynge, Semyon Bychkov and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky.
The soundtrack of the 1977 Baryshnikov television production, conducted by Kenneth Schermerhorn, was issued in stereo on a CBS Masterworks 2 LP-set, but it has not appeared on CD. (The 78-minute soundtrack would today fit quite easily onto one CD.) The LP soundtrack recording was, for a time, the only stereo album of the Baryshnikov Nutcracker available, since the show was originally telecast only in mono, and it was not until recently that it began to be telecast with stereo sound.
The first complete recording of the ballet in digital stereo was issued in 1985, on a 2-CD RCA set featuring Leonard Slatkin conducting the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. This album originally had no "filler", but it has recently been re-issued on a multi-CD set containing complete recordings of Tchaikovsky's two other ballets, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty.
The two major theatrical film versions of the ballet, Nutcracker: The Motion Picture, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, and George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, conducted by David Zinman, have each had soundtrack recordings as well.
Notable albums of excerpts from the ballet, rather than just the usual Nutcracker Suite, were recorded by Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra for Columbia Masterworks, and Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for RCA Victor. Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra, as well as Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra have also recorded albums of extended excerpts. Neither Ormandy, Reiner, nor Fiedler ever recorded a complete version of the ballet; however, Kunzel's album of excerpts runs 73 minutes, containing more than two-thirds of the music.
Conductors who have recorded only the Nutcracker Suite include such luminaries as Claudio Abbado, Leonard Bernstein, Leopold Stokowski, Mstislav Rostropovich, Herbert von Karajan, Sir Georg Solti, Sir Neville Marriner and James Levine, among many others.
Josh Perschbacher's 2007 organ arrangement and recording included only the Overture, Marche, Dance Sugar Plum Fairy, Russian Dance, Arabian Dance, Chinese Dance, Dance of the Mirlitons, and Waltz of the Flowers. This more closely resembles the selections in Walt Disney's Fantasia (see animated versions above)