07 Jan 2015

The Nutcracker Origins

This weekend, the Utah Symphony is doing things just a little differently: they’re playing a ballet suite, but without the dancers on stage. Guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth returns to conduct the Utah Symphony through the Act 2 of The Nutcracker.
We know Tchaikovsky’s work in Utah as the family-friendly ballet, performed annually by the Ballet West, with its brightly lit stage, ferocious mouse costumes, and the enormous skirt of Mother Ginger.

Ballet West perform the Nutcracker.

Ballet West perform the Nutcracker. Photo by Luke Isley

But this happy comedic ballet has a slightly darker origin story.
Written in 1816 by E.T.A. Hoffman, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” follows the story of Marie on Christmas Eve. She is nominated as the nutcracker’s special caretaker. As she and her siblings are passing the nutcracker around and cracking nuts, its jaw breaks. Marie is upset and begs to be allowed to care for the nutcracker. Adults, as they are wont to do, humor the child and she stays. As the clock starts to strike midnight, mice pour from the clock and the dolls in the cabinet come alive. Led by the Nutcracker, they fight off the mice. During the battle, Marie falls into the cabinet and the glass breaks and cuts her arm.
In the morning, no one believes her tale and she stays in bed, waiting for her arm to heal.
Marie’s godfather, Drosselmeyer, returns with the Nutcracker repaired, and tells Marie the story of how the Nutcracker came to be. It all started when The Mouse Queen and her children ate part of the king’s supper. Angry, the King had the court inventor create traps for the mice, and all of the Mouse Queen’s children were killed in the traps. The Mouse Queen swore revenge, and turned the Princess Pirlipat into an ugly creature with a huge head, a wide mouth, and a beard. Just like the Nutcracker.
In order to break the curse, the princess had to eat a nut that no one could crack, but whoever managed to do so would be able to marry the princess. The inventor’s nephew was finally able to crack it, but he accidentally stepped on the Mouse Queen and the Curse was transferred to him! With the prince ugly and ungainly, the Princess refused to marry him.
The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker

The story is more than a story for Marie, who must give up all of her toys and sweets to the Mouse King to keep him from destroying her beloved Nutcracker. But the Mouse King is greedy and demands more from her. The Nutcracker promises that if Marie finds him a sword, he can kill the Mouse King. So she does and he is successful! Afterwards, the Nutcracker whisks Marie away to the Kingdom of the Dolls in celebration.
No one believes anything that Marie says when she wakes up at home, but she is determined. Marie swears that no matter what the Nutcracker looks like, she would marry him anyway, unlike the princess. Moments later, Drosselmeyer arrives with his nephew. He was the Nutcracker! By saying she would marry him no matter what, Marie broke the curse! They get married and go to the doll kingdom.
In 1844, Alexandre Dumas (of The Three Musketeers fame) edited and revised the story of the Nutcracker. It is this revision that Tchaikovsky used to write his ballet. While Tchaikovsky himself was not happy with the ballet and it was not immediately liked, it is now one of the most popular pieces that Tchaikovsky wrote.
Even if you’ve never seen the ballet, chances are you are familiar with the music. Take a peek at some of these excerpts to hear a preview of what the symphony will be performing this weekend.

For more information including artist profiles and program notes, please go here.