Last December, like all Decembers, was “Nutcracker month” again.
I was fascinated to read a review of the New York City Ballet’s production by Anthony Tommasini, the venerable music critic of The New York Times. (“A Classic Retains its Power to Enthrall,” December 26, 2015.) Mr. Tommasini offers an unusually valuable perspective on the work: that of someone who is just a little bit surprised to rediscover something of great and unusual merit in Nutcracker.
I urge you to take a look at his review. He wrote:
I was impressed anew by the mix of intelligence and charm in Tchaikovsky’s music . . . the strangely rustling middle section conveys suspense and mystery. The battle music, between the gigantic mice and the toy soldiers come to life, turns almost feverish and pitched. Even in a seemingly simple character piece, like “Coffee” (the Arabian dance), Tchaikovsky folds elegiac instrumental lines and yearning harmonies into the subdued, sultry music.
I would like to focus on Mr. Tommasini’s choice of the words, “almost feverish.” I, for one, have always found a lot of this Tchaikovsky ballet to be feverish and troubling. The attack of the Mouse King and his troops? Hallucinogenic.
Although many people have come to accept the whole middle section of the work – an overnight dream experienced by a young girl named Clara – as essentially benign, it is actually pretty troubling, isn’t it? In her dream, Clara and her half-man, half-mechanical Nutcracker consort arrive in a place called The Kingdom of Sweets. In most productions, they are carried there by a flying swan. Once there, they experience odd visions: a Spanish dance that is called “Chocolate,” an Arabian dance (“Coffee”), a Chinese dance (“Tea”) and further performances by the Sugar Plum Fairy and (get this) dancing flowers.
That ain’t no ordinary dream, is it? It all feels like an allegory about a young girl’s sensual awakening, don’t you think? Or let’s say it, a drug experience.
Digging Back to the Original Nutcracker
After reading Mr. Tommasini’s review, I was motivated to reread “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” the brief story by E.T.A Hoffmann that serves as the basis of Tchaikovsky’s ballet.
To be correct, Hoffmann’s story did not directly serve as the basis for the ballet, which Tchaikovsky based on a somewhat sentimentalized adaptation of the story (“Histoire d’un casse-noisette”) that Alexandre Dumas published in France in 1844. If you go back to read Hoffmann’s story, I think you will agree that it is raw and troubling. In it, a young girl named Marie asks her parents if she may stay in the living room and go to bed late so she can spend a little more time to comfort the nutcracker that she received as a Christmas present; her brother broke its jaw and it is now bandaged. Her parents agree to let her stay up late and while she lingers near the Christmas tree, a surreal scene unfolds. Mice appear, the Nutcracker and the toys in her toy cabinet come to life and a seven-headed Mouse King appears to lead his troops in battle against the toys. When it seems that the mice are winning, Marie throws a shoe at the Mouse King. She then faints and falls into the glass door of the toy cabinet, injuring her arm. She goes to sleep and has a fevered dream as a result of her injury. Just to make it all stranger, the Mouse Queen then makes an appearance. (You won’t find her in Tchaikovsky’s ballet.) She argues with her husband over scraps of food, and the King then asks a human/magician sort of man to fabricate mousetraps to catch and punish his quarrelsome wife. Marie awakes with her arm mysteriously bandaged (probably by the Nutcracker), must to the concern of her family.
That isn’t the kind of story that would motivate suburban families to put their little daughters in velvet dresses and trot them off to holiday performances of The Nutcracker,is it?
Despite the fact that Tchaikovsky based the story line of his ballet on the pasteurized Dumas version, something disturbing still remains from the original Hoffmann story.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Whenever a musical work has been inspired by stories written by Hoffmann, something dark and disturbing always seems to creep in and lurk in the wings. We see it at the start of the Tchaikovsky ballet, when a dancing ballerina automaton is given to Clara’s family by a rather spooky uncle named Drosselmeyer. Hoffman, we know, was fascinated by automatons that blurred the boundary between the supernatural and the human; they appear in his disturbing story “The Sandman” and others. Hoffman’s mechanical, nearly human dolls make their appearances in musical works other than Nutcracker. You’ll encounter them in the opera Takes of Hoffman by Offenbach and the ballet Coppelia by Delibes. They go about the business of making human beings fall in love with them.
We also feel Hoffmann’s supernatural oddness reflected in Schumann’s eight Kreisleriana pieces for solo piano, which he subtitled “Fantasies for Pianoforte” and based on the character of Johannes Kreisler, a Hoffmann character.
What Was Tchaikovsky Thinking when He Wrote The Nutcracker?
We’ve all been sort of brainwashed into viewing The Nutcracker as a benign family tale told by wholesome, fatherly old Tchaikovsky.
Frankly, I am inclined to think that he was well aware that there were hallucinogenic and possibly drug-inspired aspects to the dream that he depicted in the ballet. After all, the ballet was premiered in 1892. That was 62 years after the first performance of the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz, a programmatic piece that depicts dreams triggered by opium. To think that Tchaikovsky didn’t know about drugs would be naïve, even though there seems to be no direct evidence that he used them.
The Resonances with Tchaikovsky’s Winter Dreams Symphony
Where else did Tchaikovsky depict dreams? Most notably, in the symphony that he composed in in 1866, his first symphony, entitled Winter Dreams. You won’t hear it performed as often as you will hear his fifth and sixth symphonies, astonishing orchestral showpieces that have kind of shouldered aside Winter Dreams and his equally excellent Little Russian second symphony when most orchestras plan their concert seasons.
While I was listening for the first time to Winter Dreams years ago, the first thought I had was that the work depicted not benign winter reveries, but fevered visions that seemed to me as drug-induced as those that Berlioz depicted in his Symphonie Fantastique.
It’s a great symphony. Have a listen and let me know what you think. Could it and The Nutcrackeractually depict drug experiences?
And by the way, let’s all follow Anthony Tommasini on Twitter. (@TommasiniNYT) His keen insights go well beyond his views on Tchaikovsky.