The Nutcracker – Dark Spirits in the Christmas Lights

DJ Bartel

Showing the rosy health of a ballet half its age The Nutcracker still comes around every Christmas, arriving in a flourish of pizzicato strings and tinkling triangles, exuding homey warmth, innocence, and sugary good cheer. It proceeds to the Holidays’ center stage and performers for audiences in the millions. And yet – kind reader, beware – beneath its divertissement (shimmering!), beneath its perfumed pageantry, The Nutcracker also harbors a disconsolate spirit.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Before embarking on the ballet, Tchaikovsky was enjoying a rare period of fleeting happiness. It was the summer of his fiftieth year. Peter Ilyich told friends he felt more at ease and sure of his talents than at any time in years. His music, including five symphonies, was receiving praise across Europe. Recently, Sleeping Beauty had scored a great success at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg. He was flattered, as one is flattered by the praise of children, to hear that his popularity in America was enormous. He accepted an invitation to travel to the New World for the first time, as something of a Great-Composer-in-Residence for the festival celebrating the inauguration of Carnegie Hall.

His finances, forever a worry, were at this time stable. His friend Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky, Director of the Imperial Theatres, had secured for him a Tsarist annual pension of 3,000 rubles, which by itself was enough to get by on. There were also royalties, now paying steadily and handsomely. And after twelve years Tchaikovsky continued to receive an annuity of 6,000 rubles from his “invisible fairy godmother and best friend,” as he called Countess Nadezhda von Meck.

Tchaikovsky had also managed to mend a tear in his fragile spirit. Several months before, he and his only sister Sasha had suffered an estrangement, due partly to her ill health and partly to his excitable temperament. Since his youth, Tchaikovsky had relied on the younger Sasha as his closest confidante. “In dark hours my thoughts fly to you,” he once wrote to her. “I tell myself, ‘If things go very badly with me, I shall turn to Sasha,’ or ‘I think I will do this, as I am certain Sasha would advise.'” Now in the soothing light of these halcyon days, Tchaikovsky made a rapprochement and was reconciled with Sasha. He planned to spend the New Year with her and her family at their home in the village Kamenka.

Tchaikovsky’s good fortune was so abundant that he had even fulfilled what he called “my lifelong hankering after a quiet country life.” He was living, with his manservant Sofronov, in a simple country house in the forest outside Frolovskoye, fifty miles northwest of Moscow. He strolled in the woods each morning, composed “madly inspired” each afternoon, conquered his chronic insomnia, and on Sundays replenished himself by trudging alone with a shovel and a bucket to dig mushrooms from the earth of Mother Russia. Tchaikovsky was never a happy man. Even in the best of times he often complained of “that one drop of gall in the honeypot.” But as that summer gave way to autumn, his troubles were few, his misanthropy and nervous sexual ambiguity seemed to have subsided, and his soul was at (relative) rest.

Then on October 6, he received a letter from Mme. von Meck in Moscow informing him that she had suffered a devastating reversal of fortune and was forced to discontinue his annuity. She was ceasing all further communication between them. “Do not forget me,” she wrote, “and think of me sometimes.”

[Countess Nadezhda von Meck]
Countess Nadezhda von Meck

Tchaikovsky was stunned. The loss of the money was bad in itself. Far worse was the apparent end of this long and supportive friendship. Tchaikovsky had composed much of his life’s work thanks to his dear Nadezhda’s sustenance. She had helped him through the deaths of loved ones, through a misbegotten and calamitous marriage, a breakdown, and other uncounted vicissitudes. It was she who had stipulated that they never meet, but it was also she who claimed they shared “a mental and spiritual kinship.” She said she considered him “indispensable.” Tchaikovsky had likewise come to believe that theirs was “an intimacy beyond flesh.” But now – this. He was being shucked by Mme. von Meck, dispensed with, in what amounted to a terse business letter.

Tchaikovsky hurried back a worried reply, sympathizing with her losses and pleading to continue the relationship. “Do you really think me incapable of remembering you when I no longer receive your money? Perhaps you hardly suspect how immeasurable has been your generosity. When I think of myself, my thoughts turn immediately to you.”

Mme. von Meck never answered – not this first letter, nor the next, nor any of the dozen Peter Ilyich wrote in the ensuing months. Frantically he combed through her old letters, 450 of them, in search of clues to explain her present indifference and cruelty. He found none. Why did she cut him off so? Today much scholarship speculates that someone whispered to the Mme. of the Great Composer’s sexual preferences.

Tchaikovsky returned to old bad habits. He began losing money at roulette, and drinking (vodka, cognac, wine). His former wife, Antonina, from “that nine-week rash act” of long ago, had begun to arouse scandal by appealing to prominent people for money. Tchaikovsky regularly sent her an allowance. She always wanted more!

Even his bucolic home was suddenly under siege. Business interests had moved in quickly and begun to denude the forests at Frolovskoye. “In the place of our beloved stately trees,” Tchaikovsky complained bitterly, “are those hacked corpses.”

Meanwhile, Tchaikovsky had yet to set steadily to work on a new commission from Vsevolozhsky for the Imperial Theatres: a new ballet. Vsevolozhsky hoped to capitalize in the forthcoming season on last year’s success of Sleeping Beauty. Vsevolozhsky himself would fashion the libretto, based on Alexandre Dumas’s version of E.T.A Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Rat King. Tchaikovsky was sluggish about getting to work partly because of his darkening funk, and partly because even upon reluctantly receiving the commission, as his younger brother Modest reported, “the subject of The Nutcracker did not much please him.” He worked on it only in bits and scratches.

Then while in Moscow, Tchaikovsky was told by friends that Mme. von Meck had not in fact come to ruin. She had suffered only a small pecuniary setback. She still owned her railroad and her immense estate. “It was but an excuse,” Tchaikovsky said savagely, “to rid herself of me at the first opportunity.”

Symptoms of dementia from many years past began to reappear. He suffered hallucinatory attacks at night, bone-rattling nerves and paranoia. He sensed “new and unknown presences.” He began losing hair. Some photographs from the time show him withered. A friend described him as having the despondent expression of a man in mental torture. To people nearest him, Tchaikovsky began to speak often of death, “that flat-nosed horror.”

In March he secured a loan from the Musicians’ Aid Fund and set out on his scheduled conducting tour of western Europe, after which he was to set sail for America. On the train to Berlin, he worked fitfully on The Nutcracker, then put it down again.

Six months after starting the ballet, Tchaikovsky had not got far. He’d yet to complete the first act. He detested the ballet’s scenario.

[Nutcracker]Kind reader, you’ll recall that Act I of The Nutcracker takes place in the Silberhaus home, where Clara, her brother, and friends decorate the Christmas tree and receive their gifts. Clara’s godfather Dr. Drosselmeyer arrives and sets the clocks chiming. His presence at first frightens the children, but he calms their fears by giving them gifts. To Clara he gives a nutcracker, only to have her brother break it. At midnight, Clara comes downstairs to find her godfather’s image eerily in the face of the clock. Rats are scurrying about and the toys have come to life. There is a great battle between the toys and the rats, and a final fight between the Rat King and the gallant Nutcracker, which is settled when Clara hurls her slipper at the Rat King and chases him off. The victorious Nutcracker turns magically into a prince, whereupon he and Clara are united.

Tchaikovsky thought this story was a trivial children’s tale, empty even of allegory. Not even the ambiguous, owl-like character of Dr. Drosselmeyer interested him. He also complained that Act II, which takes place in Confiturebourg, Land of Sweets, is theatrically speaking static and anti-climactic. Once the rats are driven away, he argued, where is the dramatic impetus? What is left to happen? “How the devil,” Tchaikovsky wrote to Vsevolozhsky, “do you expect me to write music to express a kingdom of lollipops!” He found the whole enterprise “tiresome,” and the more he struggled the more convinced he became that he was losing his powers, “not paying with sterling coin, but with worthless paper.”

[Celeste Mustel]
Celeste Mustel
The conducting tour took him to Paris where he spent three weeks “unable to write a single note.” His spirits were momentarily lifted when he came upon a new musical instrument – a cross between a little piano and a glockenspiel, called a Celeste Mustel, after its inventor Auguste Mustel. We know it now as a celesta. Tchaikovsky thought its “sugary bell-like tones” would be perfect for the Sugar Plum Fairy. Later he would write to his publisher,   Peter Jurgenson, asking him to order the instrument for use in the ballet, but to do so in strict secrecy. Tchaikovsky feared that his rivals and sometime friends, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov, would “sniff it out” and steal it for use in their own works.Hoping to work on The Nutcracker a few days before his ocean passage, Tchaikovsky escaped the “Parisian noise and anxiety” for a week in Rouen, where he walked the cobble streets hearing the Sugar Plum Fairy’s soft tinkling. Each day for a few hours he worked hard on the ballet. He suspected, rightly, that this would be his last chance for many weeks, that composing while on board and while in America would prove to be impossible.

Back in Paris the day before he was to set sail, Tchaikovsky made a terrible discovery. Stopping to read in the Cabinet de Lecture of the Passage de l’Opera, he saw in the Russian newspaper Novoe Vremya, on the last page, that his beloved sister Sasha had died several days before. Dead? How impossible! Why had no one notified him? What betrayal was this? Tchaikovsky threw down the paper and bolted into the street, as he later described, “running as though stung by a serpent.”

What had happened? Modest, in Paris to see his brother off, had come to Rouen the week before to deliver the tragic news, but sensed it would be too great a shock for Peter Ilyich on the threshold of a transatlantic voyage. Instead, Modest feigned homesickness and left immediately for St. Petersburg.

In the face of this catastrophe, Tchaikovsky wanted most desperately to return to Russia, but knew he had little choice but to continue on to America. Besides his Musicians’ Fund loan, he had borrowed large sums from acquaintances. He needed the 2,500-dollar honorarium. Some of it, Tchaikovsky had already received and spent. He had no choice but to be on board the SS La Bretagne when it weighed anchor from Le Havre at five the next morning.

A few hours out of port a passenger, a young man, leapt overboard. The ship siren sounded. Passengers rushed on deck to watch as a lifeboat was lowered in vain. The suicide’s wallet was found on deck. In it were thirty-five francs and a scrap of paper with a scribbled note. The note went from hand to hand among the French and American passengers, but no one could translate the German phrase. Tchaikovsky was the closest at hand who could. He read aloud to a cluster of passengers watching in silent terror. It was a line of dialogue. “Ich bin unschuldig; der Bursche weiss…” (I am innocent, the boy knows).

As the nine-day voyage wore on, Tchaikovsky’s miseries increased. His wallet, containing 460 francs in gold, was stolen. When word spread that a Great Composer was on board, many passengers sought to strike up a conversation with him. He was constantly pestered to play the piano. He became seasick. Two days of hurricane weather frightened him terribly. The ocean, for all the “ineffable beauty” he saw in it, could not dispel his sorrow, and indeed its very beauty sharpened his sorrow. Insomnia delivered that flat-nosed horror to the cabin and drove the Great Composer to the deck, where he walked, haunted by betrayals. “I am glad the passage is near its end at last,” he told his travel diary. “Further stay on the ship would be unbearable.”

Believing now that he would never finish The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky began looking for ways to back out of the commission. He wrote to Vsevolozhsky, “A consuming depression constantly gnaws at my heart. I want to keep my word, and at the same time I am deeply convinced that nothing good will come out of all my excessive efforts.”

Vsevolozhsky sympathized. “I feel bitter remorse for having requested this ballet from you.”But it was clear to Tchaikovsky that Vsevolozhsky could not agree to a cancellation of the commission. Instead, he asked Vsevolozhsky to, at least, postpone the ballet until the following season. Vsevolozhsky agreed.

During Tchaikovsky’s twenty-five days in America, despite wretched homesickness (“a terrible, inexpressible, fiercely poignant despair”), he worked dutifully on his concerts. First were four concerts at Carnegie Hall with Walter Damrosch’s New York Symphony Society Orchestra. All four were triumphant. “There was enthusiasm of a kind that never arises even in Russia,” Tchaikovsky told his diary. “The press sings hallelujahs.”

After a two-day sightseeing trip to Niagara Falls, Tchaikovsky boarded a Pullman for an all-night ride to Baltimore. He was exhausted, yet he could not sleep. He lay sprawled across the bed, fully clothed. “I had no strength to undress,” he told his diary.

At dawn the train pulled into Calvert Station and Tchaikovsky was taken to the St. James Hotel at Charles and Center, where, despite the hotel’s advertised “European Plan,” he was received “with cold neglect.” He slept, breakfasted, and walked through a drizzle to Albaugh’s Lyceum Theater for rehearsal.

To his dismay, he found the orchestra – the touring Boston Festival Orchestra led by Victor Herbert – under-manned, fatigued and under-rehearsed. “Only four first violins,” Tchaikovsky complained, “and the orchestra did not know my Third Suite. Mr. Herbert had not even played it through, although it had been promised that this should be done.”

In place of the Third Orchestral Suite, Tchaikovsky substituted the easier Serenade for Strings. His First Piano Concerto was also rehearsed, with the young able pianist Adele Aus der Ohe, a former pupil of Liszt, who had successfully performed the work with Tchaikovsky in New York. “The orchestra was impatient,” said the Great Composer. “The young leader behaved in a rather tactless way and made it too clearly evident that he thought it time to stop.”

Tchaikovsky had just enough time to return in the rain to the hotel and dress in his performance clothes, finishing with a frock coat. The two o’clock matinee was far from sold out, but, reported the Baltimore Sun, “none but musical people were present.” Ticket prices ranged from $1 to $1.50. In addition to Tchaikovsky’s works, the overture to Weber’s opera Der Freischutz, and a few miniatures by Victor Herbert were played, led by Herbert. For one critic, this “bunch of scrappy selections” were the only sour notes of the concert.

Otherwise, as the papers described, “The Greatest Composer Living” and his music were received by the audience with applause that broke into cheers. Tchaikovsky, fairly new at conducting and still somewhat awkward on stage, acknowledged the ovations by making curt, uncomfortable bows. After the B-flat-minor Piano Concerto, he was recalled five times, and each time tried to hide behind Aus der Ohe (whose name had been accidentally omitted from the program). Tchaikovsky later recorded in his diary, “I didn’t sense any special delight in the audience, at least in comparison with New York.”

Local critical reaction boarded on obsequious. The Baltimore Sun proclaimed, “Both the Serenade and Piano Concerto were of intense interest, full of the fire and dash of the Russian, the finish and scholarly workmanship of the master, and the intelligence and refinement of the artist musician. Tchaikovsky conducted his splendid music with force and understanding that inspired the musicians.” The Baltimore American was no less effusive: “Mr. Peter Iltitisch [sic] Tchaikovsky, the czar of composers and directors, has a front like Mars and an eye to threaten or command. In fact, it is hard for anyone to be unmusical in his presence. His magnetic personality sways all who are about him. The concert was one of the best ever heard here. Baltimore may congratulate itself as being one of the three cities in America selected to hear Tchaikovsky.”

Tchaikovsky offered grudging praise. Despite the poor rehearsal, he thought the orchestra played “quite well.”

[Ernest Knabe]
Ernest Knabe
No sooner had he changed clothes at the hotel when Tchaikovsky was met by Ernest Knabe, a man of colossal girth and hospitality, and owner of one of the nation’s largest piano-building firms, the Baltimore-based Knabe Pianoforte Manufactory. Knabe had come to fetch Tchaikovsky to a feast at his home. In attendance was a choice company of about two dozen citizens, including the Director of the Peabody Conservatory and the Sun music critic. The meal turned out to be the best Tchaikovsky was served in America. “Terribly delicious,” he noted. Knabe zealously kept the wine coming.The meal was followed by conversation and tricks, and ceaseless smoking and drinking. A young local composer named Richard Burmeister foisted his own music upon Tchaikovsky by playing his piano concerto. Tchaikovsky politely did not comment. The evening carried on long after Tchaikovsky had tired of enjoying himself. “A terrible hatred of everything seemed to come over me.”

Finally, after midnight, l’affaire ground to an end and Knabe escorted Tchaikovsky back to the St. James. “I slumped down on my bed like a sheaf of wheat and at once fell dead asleep.”

Next morning Knabe arrived uninvited at Tchaikovsky’s room to take him to see the city’s sights. Tchaikovsky was feeling “the peculiar American morning fatigue” that had plagued him since arriving in the U.S., and he wanted nothing at all to do with Knabe. But when he learned that they were being joined by his friend Aus der Ohe and her sister (a lawyer named Sutro also came along), Peter Ilyich acquiesced.

[Knabe Pianoforte Manufactory]
Knabe Pianoforte Manufactory
It was rainy. The first stop, naturally, was the Knabe Pianoforte Manufactory at the corner of Eutaw and West Streets. It occupied two blocks, with a main building five stories high, and steam elevators. “We inspected the whole enormous piano plant in every detail,” said Tchaikovsky. The firm employed 300 and turned out 30 pianos weekly, mostly its famous Square Pianos. Tchaikovsky admired the operation: “The sight of so many workers with serious, intelligent faces, so clean and carefully dressed despite the manual labor, leaves a fine impression.”Next the party carriaged through the stone streets to get a general impression of the city. Tchaikovsky found Baltimore “very nice, clean. The houses aren’t large. All are red brick, with white stone steps at the entrance.”

They stopped downtown for a view of the harbor, then proceeded to the Peabody Institute. “It is an enormous building beautifully built with the money of the wealthy Peabody.” He was impressed with the library, which had just received a new case of 1,000 books ordered from Germany, including many volumes of scores of works by Bach, Haydn and Beethoven. He also took note of the “art gallery of painting and sculpture (extraordinarily poor and pitiful, which does not prevent the Baltimoreans from being proud of it).” Inside the conservatory he was again corralled by Burmeister, who was a member of the Peabody faculty. “The young man was consumed with a desire to play me his symphonic poem [“The Chase After Happiness Op.2″] and I had to agree to stay and listen to it. I cannot say that it delighted me. He asked if I would make it known in Russia.”

Knabe treated Tchaikovsky and Aus der Ohe to lunch and champagne and then at three o’clock the Great Composer’s eighteen hours in Baltimore came abruptly to an end. He was scheduled to be in Washington for dinner, with a concert the following day.

In Philadelphia, again with V. Herbert’s orchestra, Tchaikovsky scored another triumph. “A deeply favorable impression,” said a critic. Then it was back to New York for some final feting. “This tour will age me very much,” Tchaikovsky wrote to his diary upon embarking home, though this did not keep him from confiding, “On the whole I am satisfied with the American trip.” He promised his American hosts he would come back to conduct again as soon as arrangements could be made.

He returned not to treeless Frolovskoye, but to the village of Maidanovo. Upon discovering that still no word had come from Nadezhda von Meck, that indeed his invisible fairy godmother had vanished from his life, he began to grieve anew. “There is bitterness gathering in my heart.” He wrote to Mme. von Meck’s son-in-law, with whom he was still friendly, “I am confused and deeply hurt not merely because she doesn’t write to me, but because she has ceased all her interest in me. The thought that I accepted her money humiliates me. It has turned upside down all my views about people and my faith in the best of them.” He would never hear from her again.

As to The Nutcracker, all he wanted now was to be rid of it. Hastening to finish, he borrowed themes from the national dances balletmaster Marius Petipa had asked be included in Act I. He used a French chanson for the “Entry of the Parents,” a German popular song for the “Grossvater Dance” and a Georgian lullaby for the “Arabian Dance.” He worked on the ballet at Maidanovo from June into the autumn, and in late October finished everything but the comparatively mundane chore of orchestration. He assessed his work: “It is definitely inferior to Sleeping Beauty – of that I’m positive.”During preparation for the premiere, disaster began to be foretold with the arrival of one calamity after another. Two in particular seemed most to spell oncoming doom. Petipa fell ill and passed his duties onto the second balletmaster, the phlegmatic Lev Ivanov. Ivanov explained he was accustomed to building the choreography first so that the music could be fitted to it, rather than vice versa. Worse, Ivanov admitted haughtily, he simply did not understand Tchaikovsky’s score.

Next came the troubled casting of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The ballerina Antonietta Dell’Eva had been a favorite at the Berlin court and based on this reputation Petipa had invited her to star in The Nutcracker. When she arrived in St. Petersburg, as one dancer at the Imperial Ballet observed, she was “fat, large, ugly and ungraceful.” Even Petipa, ill and watching from the sidelines, had to admit, “madam no good.” But it was too late to change.

The much-anticipated premiere took place at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, December 18, 1892. That night Tchaikovsky did successfully introduce the Celeste Mustel to Russian audiences, even if the sight of Mme. Dell’Eva traipsing on stage diminished the sparkling effect. He likewise introduced toy drums and trumpets, a rattle, and devices to imitate cuckoos and quails. But as Tchaikovsky had feared from the first his music could not bolster the scenario’s flimsy dramatic structure, which, combined with Ivanov’s uninventive choreography, sent the ballet reeling into a shuddering failure.

Balletomanes complained disappointingly that The Nutcracker had but one pas de deux, and that came only near the end of the ballet. They complained that too much of Act I was mimed and most of the dancing was done by characters who didn’t mean much to the story. One character did not dance at all – the black-clad Dr. Drosselmeyer, soundlessly moving in and out of the shadows. (To this day, no major ballet involves less dancing.) Tchaikovsky shared in the disappointment and added that the sight of children on stage was “downright ugly.”

Critics hardly treated Tchaikovsky’s music more gently. (It seemed not to matter that a suite arranged by the composer had earlier been well received at the Russian Musical Society in St. Petersburg.) “The papers as always,” Tchaikovsky moaned, “reviled me cruelly.” Whereas Sleeping Beauty had soared to grand heights, The Nutcracker floundered like a broken wooden toy.

By the following autumn, Tchaikovsky was dead from cholera at age fifty-three. On his deathbed, too delirious to acknowledge the last rites, he cried out repeatedly for his invisible fairy godmother, “Proklyataya! (Accused one), proklyataya, Nadezhda!”

Had he lived another decade, Tchaikovsky would have seen audiences begin to lift The Nutcracker to where it stands today: Christmastime’s piece d’occasion. Kind reader, perhaps for you too, The Nutcracker was your first ballet. It hasn’t mattered that Act II has no dramatic impetus. Victory over the Rat King simply clears the way for a pageant of flowers and reed-pipes, of Arabian sensuality and Chinese ceremony, of the love between a child and her prince, of dances by toy flutes, candy canes and the Sugar Plum Fairy. As the Act II Divertissement whirls kaleidoscopically, who cares about the plot?

And contrary to Tchaikovsky’s ideas, The Nutcracker has proved rich in allegory, and getting richer. The Rat King grows more profoundly menacing with age. The Nutcracker-Prince stands as a lantern to the lost ways of chivalry. Clara is a lodestar for childhood. And there is the grotesque Dr. Drosselmeyer, bearing gifts, scaring children. He has assumed diabolical, sexual undertones. It is from this unearthly godfather that Clara receives the toy nutcracker in the first place. And it is this sinister Dr. Drosselmeyer whose image appears eerily to Clara on the face of the clock as it strikes midnight. What on Earth? Here is a godparent, The Nutcracker warns us, who may destroy as surely as he bestows.