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How Tchaikovsky's 'Nutcracker' Became A Holiday Tradition


Here is a holiday tradition that seems as old as Christmas trees and mistletoe.


MONTAGNE: Those are the opening notes of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's ballet "The Nutcracker." Thousands of musicians and dancers all over America perform it during the holidays. And here to talk about how "The Nutcracker" became a tradition is MORNING EDITION music commentator Miles Hoffman. Good morning, Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Christmas and "The Nutcracker," honestly though, it feels like the two have gone together forever.

HOFFMAN: It does seem that way, especially since at this time of the year, it's hard to find a ballet company of any size anywhere in the country that doesn't present "The Nutcracker."


HOFFMAN: Believe or not, though, Renee, the tradition of presenting "The Nutcracker" at Christmas time is a relatively recent tradition.

MONTAGNE: Although since the story takes place on Christmas Eve, isn't the connection rather a natural one?

HOFFMAN: Well, yeah, it is. And the very first performance, which was in St. Petersburg in Russia in 1892, did take place around Christmas. But the ballet itself wasn't terribly successful. Everybody liked the first act with the big Christmas tree and the children and the toy soldiers and the battle with the Mouse King. But there's really hardly any drama in the second act. It's just essentially a series of colorful dances, and many people just didn't find the story terribly convincing.


MONTAGNE: Though here we are with the "March Of The Toy Soldiers." That's pretty convincing.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter). Yeah that's from Act One of "The Nutcracker." In fact for many years after the premier, the complete ballet was performed very rarely. The first complete performance outside Russia, in fact, was not until 1934 in London. And then the first complete "Nutcracker" in the United States didn't come until 10 years after that. The San Francisco ballet performed "The Nutcracker" on Christmas Eve of 1944. But it wasn't until the 1960s that performances of the complete "Nutcracker" ballet really took off as an annual Christmas tradition around the country.

MONTAGNE: And, Miles, though, even though you've just said that the ballet itself wasn't especially successful, and not at the very beginning, people have always loved the music, right?

HOFFMAN: Well, yes (laughter) they have. And not only have people always loved the music, they loved it before the ballet was ever performed. Tchaikovsky had made a concert suite from the ballet music. He extracted some of the music from the ballet. And that suite was played in St. Petersburg something like six months before the ballet was ever performed. And a friend of Tchaikovsky wrote in his memoirs that at one of the early performances in St. Petersburg almost every separate number of the piece was encored. It was played again. And after the performance Tchaikovsky was literally dragged up onto the stage and pelted with flowers. And frankly it's still the numbers from the suite that people know and love the best.


MONTAGNE: Talk about love - every little girl - the beloved the "Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy." And that twinkly sound, it sounds like a music box. That comes from an instrument called the celesta. Tell us more about that.

HOFFMAN: Well, that's another great story. The celesta had been invented in Paris in 1886 by a man named Auguste Mustel. Celesta from the word celestial, heavenly. And Tchaikovsky was in Paris in 1891, and he heard the instrument played. He was so captivated by the sound that he decided to use it for his ballet - the one he was working on, "The Nutcracker." But he told his publishers, number one, they should order it. They should right away get one of these instruments. But he told them to keep it a secret because he was afraid if the composers Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov heard the sound of the celesta they'd use it before he did. He didn't want to get scooped.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course now the Nutcracker joins other Christmas music that it becomes ubiquitous around this time of year. You know, almost shopping mall music. Do you think people will ever get tired of "The Nutcracker"?

HOFFMAN: I don't think so, Renee. It's true that it's inescapable around this time of year. So in a way it's easy to make fun of. And there are, I must say, some snooty, academic types who tend to look down their noses at Tchaikovsky, period. They like to say that all he knew how to do was to write pretty melodies. But first of all those people are - what's the word? - wrong. That's one word. Tchaikovsky was actually a brilliant composer on many, many levels. And if "The Nutcracker" demonstrates nothing else, it demonstrates that Tchaikovsky was one of the greatest masters of instrumental color and orchestration. Not to mention the fact that Tchaikovsky's melodies aren't just pretty. And many of them in this - just in this one ballet - are immortal. These are immortal melodies, not just nice melodies. And if it's so easy to come up with melodies that people all over the world would love forever and ever how come more people don't do it? How come more of the snooty types don't do it themselves?


MONTAGNE: Obviously you - obviously a Tchaikovsky fan, Miles.

HOFFMAN: I am a Tchaikovsky fan, Renee. And, you know, there's another wonderful thing about "The Nutcracker," which is that for thousands and thousands of children it's been their first exposure both to ballet and to classical music. So how could that be bad?

MONTAGNE: And also for many children it would be their first chance to perform in a ballet as well.

HOFFMAN: Right, right. And by the way there's a very sweet story speaking of that about Tchaikovsky and the children who performed in the very first "Nutcracker" in St. Petersburg. Apparently the children had a hard time learning the little, toy instruments they were supposed to play on stage. And in fact they never did learn them very well, but after the premier Tchaikovsky sent a note to all the children telling them that he was very happy with their performance and he sent each child a box of candy.

MONTAGNE: Oh, well, a very sweet Christmas tradition. I'm glad we have it - "The Nutcracker." And happy holidays to you, Miles, and your family.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee. You, too.

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is the violist of the American Chamber Players and the author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion."


MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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