Saturday, December 20, 2014

Dear Abbé

Professional musicologists offer answers and advice. Free.


I am 8 years old and have been dancing in The Nutcracker since my first pink tutu. Some of my little friends say Tchaikovsky is passé and musicology is disinterested in ballet. Papa says, "If you see it in "Dear Abbé, it's so." Please tell me the truth: what was the Nutcracker like in the Olden Days?

                                                                VIRGINIA O'H.
                                                                115 West Ninety Fifth Street

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. Yes, Virginia, pink tutus and dancing mice are still fancied by children everywhere. I asked the guy who wrote the book, Roland John Wiley, to answer your question.

Kellemes karácsonyi ünnepeket / Fröhliche Weinachten / Buon Natal.


Prof. Wiley writes:

Mariinsky Theatre
St. Petersburg, 1892
Virginia, had you seen the first Nutcracker in December of 1892, its would have looked striking (because of different fashions in costumes), but the story would have been familiar. There was a big Christmas party where the children received their presents, followed by Counsellor Drosselmeyer and his extraordinary gifts, including the nutcracker that made such a deep impression on young Clara. (That was her name in St. Petersburg;  she is sometimes called Marie nowadays after her name in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, on which the ballet is based.) Presently the guests will have dispersed, the Christmas tree to have grown to an immense size, followed by a battle of toy soldiers and mice, a waltz of the snowflakes, and in the second act, a grand divertissement, capped off by the pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy, including her famous solo with the celesta, before the final dance. The parts of Clara and Fritz were assigned to children, and children filled the stage, in Act II representing candies and dressed accordingly in a grand tableau. In general a large number of artists took the stage in the first Nutcracker, including sixty adult dancers for the Waltz of the Snowflakes, a composition articulated by their formation into appropriate patterns, including stars and snowflakes. It was customary in the imperial ballet to put children on stage even when a piece was not aimed at children in the audience, as the theatre direction supported a large school and encouraged practical experience in its students from an early age.

Different then was how the ballet was presented and received. It was not the sole entertainment of an evening, but came after a complete opera.  In the early days that opera was Tchaikovsky’s last, Iolanta, it and The Nutcracker commissioned to be performed together, imitating the practice of Parisian theatres to combine opera and ballet on the same program.  Then too, whereas we think of Nutcracker as a Christmas piece, in Russia it was performed any time during the theatre season, from September to April.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about the first Nutcracker was that it wasn’t very well-received, and has never been much performed in Russia, at least compared with the institutional stature it enjoys in the west, staged wherever minimal artistic forces can be mustered to make it go. While Tchaikovsky’s music largely escaped critique, the ballet itself came under fire.

Roland John Wiley is professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Michigan. He is author of Tchaikovsky's Ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty Nucracker (Oxford UP, 1991) and the new Master Musicians life-and-works Tchaikovsky (Oxford UP, 2009). As it happens, his granddaughters make their balletic debut this season as mice in . . . need we continue?

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