November 07, 2013

It's Nutcracker Season!

It's Nutcracker Season!

Yesterday, November 6, marked 120 years since the death of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Russia’s first world-renowned composer and author of this season’s perennial hit, The Nutcracker ballet.

As fall floats smoothly toward winter and Christmas waves from just around the corner, stages all over the country light up with familiar melodies and dances: the Midnight Overture, the Sugar Plum Fairy, all the stereotype-laden candies… What’s a good holiday season without The Nutcracker?


A contemporary production of the Nutcracker by the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet


And thanks to the wintertime ubiquity of the Nutcracker, everyone knows Tchaikovsky – Pyotr (Peter) Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a Russian composer so familiar he might as well have been American (if not for the strange-sounding name with too many consonants). But as a national favorite, the Nutcracker is much younger than you might expect. Everyone remember the original Fantasia? The opening monologue to the Nutcracker Suite is telling:

“You know, it’s funny how wrong an artist can be about his own work. The one composition of Tchaikovsky’s that he really detested was his “Nutcracker Suite,” which is probably the most popular thing he ever wrote. It’s a series of dances taken out of a full-length ballet called “The Nutcracker” that he once composed for the St. Petersburg Opera House. It wasn’t much of a success, and nobody performs it nowadays.”

Little did Disney know that in 1954 – 62 years after the ballet was written – George Balanchine would premiere his own production of the Nutcracker, a version so successful we now associate Christmas with Tchaikovsky and dancing mice. If it weren’t for that, the commentator would have been absolutely right: the full version of the ballet was a flop in its premiere at the Mariinsky Theater on December 18, 1892, with critics going so far as to criticize the ballerinas’ figures instead of finding much to say about the music or choreography. The score was only saved by Tchaikovsky’s choice to extract a few pieces from it to form the Suite.

The original cast of the premiere – bo-ring.

However, as famous as the Suite may be, it’s a little hasty to say it was “probably the most popular thing he ever wrote.” That honor goes to that other American standard: the 1812 Overture – you likely know it from fireworks displays and V for Vendetta. Written for a confluence of celebratory events in 1880 – including the construction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in honor of victory in the War of 1812 – the overture was described by Tchaikovsky himself as "...very loud and noisy, but [without] artistic merit, because I wrote it without warmth and without love." Notice the trend? For all of Tchaikovsky’s dislike for his own work, the audience still knows these two pieces best. And both The Nutcracker and the 1812 Overture keep on being performed, time and time again, immortalizing Tchaikovsky’s name for generations to come.


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons and Eugenia Sokolskaya

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