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The Mouse That Roared

Tchaikovsky had his doubts when composing 'The Nutcracker,' but time has proven his fears were unjustified.


Somehow I got through childhood without seeing "The Nutcracker." I knew and loved the "Nutcracker" Suite, of course. For one thing, the "Trepak" (the Russian Dance) provided the theme music for a Saturday radio program I tuned to regularly. Much of my early music exposure, in fact, came by way of such kids' programs on the radio.

The closest I got to seeing the ballet, though, was Disney's 1940 animated film "Fantasia," with its whirligig waltzing flowers and bobbing mushroom-hatted Chinese dancers (the littlest one struggling to keep up but always a beat behind. I could relate.)

It wasn't until high school that I learned that the suite was only part of a larger whole and--a friend insisted--not even the best part. I was incredulous. Better music than the "Overture"? The "March"? "The Waltz of the Flowers"?

Well, yes.

How about the relentlessly cresting music as the Christmas tree magically grows? Or the expansive melody that introduces the snow scene in the forest? Or the solemn and grand adagio for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier?

For that moment, choreographer Marius Petipa had asked Tchaikovsky to write something with "colossal effects," and he did.

"Nutcracker" came into existence because Petipa and Tchaikovsky had just collaborated on the wildly popular--and expensive--"Sleeping Beauty" ballet. The same team (which included Imperial Theaters director Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky) decided to follow that success with another ballet based on a children's tale.

They paired it with a one-act opera, "Iolanthe," based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen about a blind princess who regains her sight through the power of love. Tchaikovsky composed both works thinking about how the two could complement each other. But knowing it would always be hard to pair them, he authorized individual performances in the future.

As it turned out, they're almost never performed together now. "Nutcracker" overcame initial criticism to become a perennial favorite. "Iolanthe" has become a rarity.

The composer had doubts about the project, however. He wasn't that happy with the libretto, based on Alexander Dumas' version of E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Nutcracker Prince and the Mouse King."

It tells the story of a young girl given a nutcracker as a Christmas present. She falls asleep and dreams that the Nutcracker wins a battle against a mouse king and then turns into a handsome prince who takes her away to a candy kingdom. Various people dance for her there, but her dream must finally end.

Tchaikovsky felt that the story offered him little scope for the poetic fantasy he had found in "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty."

"For some time the prospect of [this] urgent, wearisome work has begun to frighten me," Tchaikovsky wrote while trying to compose the music. "The awareness that things are not going well torments me and agonizes me to tears, to the point of sickness; a consuming depression constantly gnaws at my heart, and I have not for a long time felt as unhappy as now."

Though the hypersensitive composer finally did warm to the project, Petipa, the choreographer, was the one to actually fall ill.

Shortly after the ballet went into rehearsal, Petipa's assistant, Lev Ivanov, who also contributed to the Lakeside Acts of "Swan Lake," had to step in. It's unclear how much Ivanov created and how much Petipa directed from his sickbed.

To rev up interest in the upcoming ballet (and to discharge another obligation to write new music), Tchaikovsky created the well-known "Nutcracker" Suite for a concert in March 1892 by the Russian Music Society. It proved a great hit. Five of the seven movements even had to be repeated.

But the ballet itself, and the opera, got a cool reception at the premiere Dec. 18, 1892, at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. "Nutcracker" would not be repeated there for nearly two decades. "Iolanthe" would fade even further from the repertory.

Tchaikovsky died less than a year after the premiere, in November 1893. Thus, "Nutcracker," "Iolanthe" and the "Pathetique" Symphony were his last major works.

Why the cool response?

In part because "Nutcracker" differed too much from conventional ballets of the time. People did not like waiting until the last act to see the ballerina in the only grand pas de deux in the work. The audience also didn't like seeing the naturalistic elements of the party scene, with its children's games and fights.

There are other problems.

If you use children in the party scene, you must make sure the choreography is simple. Will it then interest the adults in the audience? If you use adult dancers pretending to be children, will the effect come off? Should you use a mix of children and adults? If so, how?

How do you get around the fact that the leading characters have virtually no dancing to do and the leading dancers have virtually no role in the story? Do you rewrite the story?

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