Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Diversion: The Nutcracker

It's become a sort of tradition on this blog to have a Christmas diversion in the form of a surprising transmigratory history, tracing how a story from another language and culture has ended up
  through translation, adaptation and changes of media  as typical Christmas entertainment for children and adults on the British popular stage.

The first was The Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Arabic folk tales from whose French translation the pantomime Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp is descended. To find it, enter aladdin in the Search box on the right. Then came another pantomime, Cinderella, the story line of which had been written in 18th-century France (enter cinderella). Last year, the outcome wasn't a pantomime but a favourite Christmas ballet, Sleeping Beauty (enter sleeping beauty). This year we continue in the ballet genre with the great rival of Sleeping Beauty for Christmas audiences in the United States as well as in Britain: The Nutcracker.

The beginning
The story in this case was written by the German Romantic author of fantastic tales, E T A Hoffman.
"In 1816 Hoffman published Nutcracker and the Mouse King (Nussknacker und Mäusekönig). Based in part on his own life experiences – he had built a cardboard castle in 1815, just as Godpapa Drosselmeier does in the story – Hoffman published the story in a children’s Christmas book. Hoffman and his friends did not consider The Nutcracker entirely a success."
But they were wrong. It was a golden age for fairy stories and folk tales in German culture. Indeed Germany is currently celebrating the first publication, in time for Christmas 1812, of the Grimm brothers' Die Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales).

From German and Germany to French and France
The transfer to French and to France came about in 1844 in the version by no less an author than Alexandre Dumas père (he of The Three Musketeers). He gave it the title Histoire d'un casse-noisette and his popularity ensured its success there. Why Dumas?
"Alexandre Dumas was a born storyteller. So writing a tale for children was bound to attract him and in fact he wrote several. What's more, he constantly sought inspiration in the popular culture of the countries and regions he visited and in the folk tale genre."
However, his version was not a strict translation but an adaptation, a retelling in his own words. It could hardly have been otherwise, given the circumstances under which he composed it:
"Dumas explains how he was obliged, at a children's party one evening where his daughter had been invited, to tell an impromptu story to the little rascals – who had tied him to his armchair while he was snoozing."
It was Dumas' version that was eventually to provide the script for the ballet.

From French and France to Russia and ballet
Switch now to late Czarist Russia.

Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the enterprising impresario of the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, was looking for a worthy follow-up to the success of Sleeping Beauty. So he thought of Histoire d'un casse-noisette and he turned again to Marius Petipa for the choreography and to Tchaikovsky for the music. It's not necessary to posit a Russian translation of the story: like all the Russian elite of the period, Vsevolozhsky and his collaborators knew French, and furthermore he himself had spent time as a diplomat in Paris. Petipa adapted the story for its intersemiotic translation (i.e., transfer between media) to the dance and the stage, and gave strict instructions to the composer, even specifying the number of bars for each dance. This irked Tchaikovsky, who nevertheless delivered the sublimely elegant music that has become so familiar. Tchaikovsky in return imposed his own conditions – but that's another story. Vsevolozhsky again contributed costume and decor designs. Meanwhile Petipa fell ill and had to be replaced by his assistant, Lev Ivanov, who therefore did most of the choreography.

In the event, Nutcracker didn't enjoy the same success as Sleeping Beauty. Only extracts were included in the Diaghilev repertoire. Some people said the it was too childish for adult audiences. Some critics considered the music "too symphonic". However, Tchaikovsky turned this latter to his advantage by distilling from the score the orchestral suite that is performed far more often than the ballet, and thus caused another change of medium in yet another part of the world – more about this later.

From Russia to the West
Next post.

  • Introduction. In E. F. Blieler, ed., The Best Tales of Hoffman, New York, Dover, 1967. The full German text of the Hoffman story is available here.
  • Kate Connolly. Grimm's Fairy Tales: 200th anniversary triggers a year of celebration. Guardian Unlimited, 20 December 2012. The article is here.
  • Delphine Dubois. Histoire d'un casse-noisette. Alexandre Dumas: deux siècles de littérature vivante. Société des Amis d'Alexandre Dumas. The article is here. The full French text of Dumas' version is available here.
  • 'Emilia'. The Nutcracker. The Ballet Bag, 2009. The article is here. It contains an English synopsis of the story.
The principal characters in the story. Source: Seiskaya Ballet.

And after reading about it, why not enjoy it? Hurry to:
Royal Ballet. The Nutcracker. Video, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2009, approx. 2 hours. It's here, with a modern adaptation of Lev Ivanov's choreography, but only for this week. 


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