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  • The American Russophile

Щелкунчик" Петра Ильича Чайковского. The Nutcracker by Peter Tchaikovsky

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

How could America get through the holiday season without the sparkling romantic music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" (Rus. Щелкунчик / Schelkunchik)? Tchaikovsky based his ballet suite on Alexandre Dumas père's "The Tale of the Nutcracker" (1845) a re-working of the original E.T.A. Hoffman tale "The Nutcracker and the Rat King" (1816).

The Nutcracker ballet premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1892. The ballet, with choreography by Marius Petipa and was not particularly successful at first, though Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker suite had considerable success.

Act one of Petipa'a original libretto of the ballet tells of a party on Christmas eve at the Stalbaum house. Marie, the heroine of the Nutcracker (called "Clara," the name of Marie's doll, in later productions) and her brother Fritz are entertained by a mysterious magician who makes toys come to life. It turns out to be Mr. Drosselmeyer, Marie's godfather, in disguise. who gives her a toy nutcracker. Fritz breaks the nutcracker while teasing Marie, the children dance, and the party ends. Marie goes to her room, and is hugging her nutcracker when Drosselmeyer appears as a kind magician who makes the nutcracker and the Christmas tree decorations come to life. The decorations become soldiers, and the Nutcracker leads them into battle against an evil Mouse King. Marie throws a slipper at the Mouse King, and the mice disperse. The nutcracker turns into a handsome prince.

In Act two Marie and the prince are attacked by the mice again, and the prince defeats them. As they celebrate their victory over the mice, Spanish, Indian, Chinese and Russian dolls take turns express their gratitude to them through theirnational dances, then fairies begin to dance. Drosselmeyer appears and magically transforms everything again. Marie finds herself betrothed the the nutcracker prince amidst preparations for their wedding. Marie awakens in her room, still holding the nutcracker, and realizes that it was all a wondrous dream.

Disney's 1940 animated feature Fantasia introduced the music of the Nutcracker suite to the broader U.S. public in a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Leopold Stokowski. The 1958 Playhouse 90 TV presentation, choreographed by the great George Balanchine, made a lasting impression on the U.S. viewing public, and this led to the incredible popularity of the Nutcracker in the U.S. during the Christmas season. The tradition of Nutcracker performances during this time of year is now almost universal among U.S. ballet troupes.

Music from the Nutcracker has been heard in an astronomical number of U.S. movies, especially those with Christmas themes, from "Caddyshack" (1980) to "The Haunting" (2009) and even "Muppets Most Wanted" (2014). U.S. television use of music from the Nutcracker has been just as common. The Simpsons alone employed music from the Nutcracker in no less than 6 episodes.

A 1989 performance by the Bolshoy Theatre

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