How did The Nutcracker come to be one of our most beloved Christmas traditions?
It's one of the newer Christmas traditions, but it's still had time to become near and dear to our hearts. Every year, usually at the beginning of December, many families attend the only piece of ballet or live theatre they'll see all year: The Nutcracker.
But how did The Nutcracker become such a popular tradition? What sets it apart from other Christmas stories and makes it special? And where, exactly, did it come from?
The story itself is quite old, and the one we see onstage isn't even the original, but a popular adaptation by the French author Alexandre Dumas, best known for writing The Three Musketeers. Once the story made the leap (no pun intended) from page to stage, though, history was in the making.
From the Ashes of Disappointment...
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the famous Russian composer also known for the 1812 overture, composed The Nutcracker as his final and least satisfying ballet, taking on the project with a marked lack of enthusiasm.
How ironic that it should become one of the most beloved Christmas traditions of the twentieth century while many of the composer's other works fell by the wayside!
The ballet premiered in Russia in 1892. The famous "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," now well known for its lilting, somewhat exotic melody, made Tchaikovsky the first composer in history to use the celesta, an instrument similar to a group of tuning forks. Most people thought the instrument too subtle for symphonic use.
First Russia, Then the World!
The Nutcracker didn't exactly make an instantaneous leap from Russia to the archive of American Christmas traditions. In fact, not until 1944 did an American ballet company decide to perform the entire ballet. But that year the San Francisco Ballet took on the task, performing the ballet as an annual tradition.
But it was George Balanchine who really started The Nutcracker on the road to Christmas traditions. In 1954 he choreographed the ballet for a New York company, and not a year has passed since when the ballet wasn't performed in New York City.
Balanchine was the first to have the roll of Clara danced by a child, necessitating a much simpler choreography. By the late 1960s, other ballet companies across North America had jumped on the bandwagon, enthusiastically performing The Nutcracker to a receptive annual audience.
One wonders whether the ballet's great posthumous success would have changed Tchaikovsky's opinion of his final ballet, but unfortunately he died in 1894, long before The Nutcracker became one of the nation's most beloved Christmas traditions.