Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Cracking Some Old Nuts

This is a day late but I was otherwise occupied yesterday I do apologise. However, yesterday was, as anyone who used Google will know, the 120th anniversary of the first performance of the ballet The Nutcracker. ABC Classics pointed out the interesting fact that it was actually December 6 according to the records but because Russia wasn't on the same calendar as we are now it translates as December 18. Ain't time fun?

The Nutcracker, unsurprisingly, was one of the first classical works I was aware of. I remember it was one of two pieces I played (I'm sure it was one dance) in the class band in infants school. I was one of the tambourines so I shook it on the red notes. It was a lot of fun. The other piece was a theme from Eine kleine nachtmusick.

So to honour this most famous (arguably) of ballets I thought I'd have a bit of a look at where it came from. The original story was by the wonderful storyteller ETA Hoffmann and was a novella called The Nutcracker and The Mouse King. I haven't read it yet but it's available on the Open Library with some beautiful illustrations from an 1853 edition (just hit the link in the title). That was published in 1816 and was followed by a watered-down version in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas pere.

It was that second version that was used for the ballet which further simplified the story, which did explain why the prince was a nutcracker in the first place. While we all know Tchaikovsky wrote the music, it's interesting to discover who wrote the libretto. That was Marius Petipa, a dancer and choreographer who started his long career in France, worked for a time in Madrid then worked with the Russian Imperial Ballet during its golden age and had a huge influence not only on that company but ballet itself. He revived numerous ballets from the first half of the century and created many more.

It turns out The Nutcracker was not one of his most successful works at first. The initial performance was widely deemed a failure, partly through choreography and also the abrupt shift from the 'real' world to the 'fantasy' world. The music was mostly appreciated however and Tchaikovsky arranged the suite we're all familiar with - plus another one we're not so familiar with. It wasn't until the 1960s that the ballet itself became popular with audiences.

Intriguingly, it is said that Pepita wrote very demanding and precise guidelines in the libretto which told Tchaikovsky not only key signatures but how many bars he was allowed per movement. These restrictions on his creativity rankled him somewhat so, if this true, he didn't enjoy writing the piece one bit. There's also a story that the adagio in the pas de deux was an answer to a friend's challenge that Tchaikovsky couldn't write a melody using the notes in a one octave scale in sequence. Another story is that he wrote a melancholy dance because his sister died during composition.

A final interesting aside, composition for the ballet was interrupted because Tchaikovsky had to go to the US to conduct the opening concert at Carnegie Hall. A Russian honouring the opening of an American music icon by his presence alone. There's an irony there, somewhere.

PS The above image I took from the Wikipedia article on the ballet which has a lot of information. It's an original sketch by the designer of the first performance, Konsatantin Ivanov.

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