By Philip Calinda
On December 18, 1892, an audience at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia attended the premiere of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker – an adaptation of E.T.A Hoffmann’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The ballet’s choreography and storyline were not received well, with critics giving them lukewarm reviews. Tchaikovsky’s music, however, earned hearty applause from both critics and the audience. While the original audience may have enjoyed the rich melodies and unique orchestration, the ballet went practically dormant for the next 30 years. It was performed in Russia during this time, but only after undergoing serious changes to the storyline.
It was not until 1934 when The Nutcracker heard its first complete performance outside of Russia in Britain. It then ‘crossed the pond’ in an abridged form, making its New York City debut in 1940. Four years later on Christmas Eve, a complete version was performed in San Francisco, receiving such high praise that The Nutcracker has been included in every season since, undergoing restaging but never losing the music. The ballet’s success in San Francisco rippled throughout the United States, becoming a staple – and huge grosser – of every troupe’s repertoire.
The Nutcracker has become an essential part of the American Christmas season. I cannot think of another piece of music that has overtaken America’s psyche quite like The Nutcracker’s. The only other pieces that come to mind are The National Anthem, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – a uniquely American piece in its own right – and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture written to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napoleon. None of these works seem to measure up. The Nutcracker holds a prominent place in too important a season to have any real competition.
Would we 21st Century Americans have a hard time recognizing Christmas without the music from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker? I think the answer is yes. While many of us don’t necessarily find particular interest in the story or the choreography, everyone seems to at least recognize, and enjoy, the music.